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Cellphone Towers In Yellowstone National Park: A Flaw In The National Park Service Mission?


When the National Park Service was created nearly a century ago, its mission seemed straightforward: to preserve the landscape for the enjoyment of today's and tomorrow's generations. As the agency nears its centennial, is there a need to recommit to that mission?

Those who believe so might point to ever-increasing fees across the National Park System, efforts to create deeper channels for boats at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and ongoing snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park.

But there also are groups that believe the Park Service should indeed re-examine its mission statement and focus a bit more on recreation in the parks and working with businesses that reflect an element of the human landscape in the parks, such as the oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore.

If you follow the writings and musings of Michael Frome, the man whom the late Gaylord Nelson said had no literary peer when it came to arguing for "a national ethic of environmental stewardship," you'll sense his belief that the Park Service needs to focus more on the environmental landscape of the park system.

That message was inherent in Mr. Frome's recent thoughts on the approval of a cellphone tower near Lake in Yellowstone.

Cellphone service originating from inside the boundaries of Yellowstone has been limited to the Mammoth, Old Faithful, Canyon, Tower-Roosevelt, and Grant developed areas. The Lake developed area is the one additional location in the park where park managers determined cellphone coverage could be added under the park’s 2008 Wireless Communications Services Plan Environmental Assessment and its associated Finding of No Significant Impact.

In July the park received permission to erect a tower near Lake. The new cellular site is to be located next to a buried water tank on a 100-foot rise above the Lake Administrative Area and 700 feet below the top of the Elephant Back Ridge. This site already has access via an existing service road and is near existing electric and phone lines. Antennas will be configured to minimize spillover coverage into Yellowstone’s backcountry.

In the September edition of his Portogram, Mr. Frome laments that decision.

"Changes made in response to comments were incorporated into a Finding of No Significant Impact. No significant impact — so the park administrators said. As they see it, the developed areas, with electric wires, phone lines, lots of automobiles, gas stations, hotels, commercial gift shops and sewage treatment, are 'sacrifice areas,' otherwise known as popcorn playgrounds or tourist ghettos," he writes.

"Before coming, you think of Yellowstone the way it is in the nature series on television. The Park Service tells you to unplug your ears and connect with nature — but when you arrive you can check your e-mail, the state of your stocks, and feel the conveniences of home," continues Mr. Frome. "Perhaps park administrators might have chosen not to allow those towers in the first place. They might have determined this was a strictly commercial service using public resources and public land, and that the signals the towers emit can spill into and pollute hiking trails away from developed areas.

"They might have decided that since hotels in the park get along without television, they can make it without wireless Internet service. When people come to Yellowstone, it’s one of the special times in their lives. They want to hear the splash of geysers and feel themselves in harmony with natural forces that over the centuries created the thermal features, peaks and canyons. That is what they come here for, and not having that sound drowned out by somebody conversing via cell phone."

As Mr. Frome goes on to argue against the cell tower, he says national parks "are presumed preserved to reflect the original America. Many National Park Service personnel want it that way. They care deeply, feeling their mission is to encourage us to embrace a lifestyle that treads lightly on the earth, and that doing so adds richness to all of our lives. They ought to be able to defend their park areas from overuse and misuse with a clear conscience. To deplete or degrade the visible physical resource does something to the invisible spirit of place as well."

To further drive home that point, Mr. Frome points to Zane Grey's 1925 book, The Vanishing American, in which "Nophaie most loved to be alone, out in the desert, 'listening to the real sounds of the open and to the whispering of his soul.”

"In short," Mr. Frome concludes in his column, "instead of treating a national park like any other place, the park professionals ought to say, 'If you can’t do without your cellphone or laptop or tablet, don’t come here!'”


I agree 100%-- and any and all Gameboy or similar devices should be confiscated from every kid upon entry.LOL

[size= 14px; line-height: 18px]"'In short,' Mr. Fromme concludes in his column, 'instead of treating a national park like any other place, the park professionals ought to say, "If you can’t do without your cellphone or laptop or tablet, don’t come here!"'"[/size]

[size= 14px; line-height: 18px]Gosh, that's a snobbish statement. Mr. Fromme says all visitors go to Yellowstone to hear hot springs and see wildlife, not to connect to cell phones. That's an awfully broad brush to say "everyone thinks this way." Not so.[/size]

Having Yellowstone as the "original America" means no ice cream shops and no souvenir stands either. Maybe some people would like this too.

I don't see a problem with this. The tower is placed next to existing infrastructure, below the skyline, and provides services people use routinely. Arguing against this, is like arguing against roads, campgrounds, or stores.

There is a difference between a National Park that "preserves the unimpaired natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations" and a National Wildlife Refuge System that is established to protect the wildlife.

You already have lodging and eating facilities onsite. This is not wilderness. The cell tower is needed for public safety reasons, imo, as there is a lot of bear activity around the lake as well as the potential for watercraft emergencies should a remote canoe tip and there be someone with hypothermia or a camper across the lake with a sharp or blunt force injury. It's not like they're putting it up on top of a nearby peak and building a service road up to it!

Michael Frome's remarks about Park visitors are the stuff of simple, ol' time misanthropy. His unlaundered psychic underwear is showing, with these derisive comments about people.

"When the National Park Service was created nearly a century ago, its mission seemed straightforward: to preserve the landscape for the enjoyment of today's and tomorrow's generations."

The NPS was created by the Organic Act of 1916. This is the document that the Centennial will celebrate, 3 years hence. It in only one page long.

While the Organic Act of 1916 does direct the Service to "conserve the scenery", it also makes clear - quite emphatically - that this scenery is for the enjoyment of the people. It explicitly stipulates & directs that modifications & facilities will be installed & maintained, to provide for this enjoyment.

The idea that others should be excluded (or at least demeaned), in order to foster our own sense of solitude (etc), involves a gaping logical hole you could park the Grand Canyon in.

One glance at that Organic Act of 1916 will be sufficient to remind us, that Parks were & are about making the scenery (etc) available to ALL the people .... and that barring or clearing out the popcorn & playground crowd was never the plan or idea.

But Ted, the key intent of the Organic Act, to preserve the landscapes within the park system, has been supported by the courts time and again.

Professor Robert Keiter, who long has studied and written about the parks, made just that point in his latest book (which I need to review), To Conserve Unimpaired, The Evolution of the National Park Idea.

The national park idea embodies our commitment to nature conservation, itself a matter of ongoing controversy. Forged at a time when the nation's principal goal was to subdue nature and populate the continent, the national park idea ran counter to these goals; it held that our natural heritage was important enough to preserve intact for the benefit of present and future generations. Congress soon translated this sentiment into the Organic Act, employing the language of conservation, promotion, enjoyment, and non-impairment, a terminology that has set the standard for our nature conservation efforts ever since.

There's much more in the book to support that notion, and I'll return to it in the coming weeks.

For a good historian's interpretation of the Organic Act, and the intent of its authors, read this piece by the late Robin Winks, who spent 45 years at Yale University.

Here, so everyone can read if firsthand, is the entire act:

Sixty-fourth Congress of the United States of America;
At the First Session,

Begun and held at the City of Washington on Monday, the sixth day of December, one thousand nine hundred and fifteen. _____________

To establish a National Park Service, and for other purposes


Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there is hereby created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service, which shall be under the charge of a director, who shall be appointed by the Secretary and who shall receive a salary of $4,500 per annum. There shall also be appointed by the Secretary the following assistants and other employees at the salaries designated: One assistant director, at $2,500 per annum; one chief clerk, at $2,000 per annum; one draftsman, at $1,800 per annum; one messenger, at $600 per annum; and, in addition thereto, such other employees as the Secretary of the Interior shall deem necessary: Provided, That not more than $8,100 annually shall be expended for salaries of experts, assistants, and employees within the District of Columbia not herein specifically enumerated unless previously authorized by law. The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

Sec. 2. That the director shall, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, have the supervision, management, and control of the several national parks and national monuments which are now under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, and of the Hot Springs Reservation in the State of Arkansas, and of such other national parks and reservations of like character as may be hereafter created by Congress: Provided, That in the supervision, management, and control of national monuments contiguous to national forests the Secretary of Agriculture may cooperate with said National Park Service to such extent as may be requested by the Secretary of the Interior.

Sec. 3. That the Secretary of the Interior shall make and publish such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary or proper for the use and management of the parks, monuments, and reservations under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, and any violations of any of the rules and regulations authorized by this Act shall be punished as provided for in section fifty of the Act entitled "An Act to codify and amend the penal laws of the United States," approved March fourth, nineteen hundred and nine, as amended by section six of the Act of June twenty-fifth, nineteen hundred and ten (Thirty-sixth United States Statues at Large, page eight hundred and fifty-seven). He may also, upon terms and conditions to be fixed by him, sell or dispose of timber in those cases where in his judgment the cutting of such timber is required in order to control the attacks of insects or diseases or otherwise conserve the scenery or the natural or historic objects in any such park, monument, or reservation. He may also provide in his discretion for the destruction of such animals and of such plant life as may be detrimental to the use of any of said parks, monuments, or reservations. He may also grant privileges, leases, and permits for the use of land for the accommodation of visitors in the various parks, monuments, or other reservations herein provided for, but for periods not exceeding twenty years; and no natural curiosities, wonders, or objects of interest shall be leased, rented, or granted to anyone on such terms as to interfere with free access to them by the public: Provided, however, That the Secretary of the Interior may, under such rules and regulations and on such terms as he may prescribe, grant the privilege to graze live stock within any national park, monument, or reservation herein referred to when in his judgment such use is not detrimental to the primary purpose for which such park, monument, or reservation was created, except that this provision shall not apply to the Yellowstone National Park.

Sec. 4. That nothing in this Act contained shall affect or modify the provisions of the Act approved February fifteenth, nineteen hundred and one, entitled "An Act relating to rights of way through certain parks, reservations, and other public lands."

Speaker of the House of Representatives

Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate

Approved 25 August 1916 (handwritten)

Woodrow Wilson (signature)

Is the director still paid only $4500 per annum? If you go back and read Horace Albright's book, The Birth of the National Park Service : The Founding Years, 1913-33 you might learn a lot of interesting things. This Act, and most of the parks it protects are, like most other stuff produced by Congress in the last couple hundred years, a hodge-podge of responses to special interests, a whole lot of political infighting and, of course, money. Likewise, nearly every Congressional action related to national parks since 1916 have also been battles between forces vying for control of our parks - whether they are those who see potential dollar signs in every tree or rock and those who see beauty and wonder. Happily, beauty and wonder seem to be doing pretty well. At least for now . . .

I look forward to your review of Prof. Keiter's new book, Kurt, and to your ongoing treatment of the important themes I'm sure it does address.

No doubt, courts do have a vital role in interpreting Laws, such as the Organic Act of 1916. And, Congress does modify previously passed laws, and creates new ones that impact former ones. These factors - and others - play big roles in the legal & cultural underpinnings of our National Parks and related resources.

I will read the reference you link, by Robert Wink, later today. The "intent of its authors" sounds especially interesting ... and that is key, as we've seen with high-profile Constitutional questions, recently. (And sometimes, "intentions" turn out to have been unworthy, or irrelevant ...)

Yeah, we have to recognize that phrases & quotes from a century-old Act might have been tweaked in the time since ... and this Act shows plenty of signs of having been a pretty rough/preliminary draft, originally.

Rhetorically, I favor the opposing philosophical view to Robert Keiter's, seeing the glass half full, vs half empty. There is more to be gained in learning to love & embrace the impaired, the flawed & compromised, than in cleaving only unto the sublime. All resources are, after all, impaired & encumbered - including the finest & largest Alaska Parks. And it cuts both ways; while even the most soaring Park-concepts end up dragged kicking back to earth, so too even our homeliest non-protected resources also offer some seriously cool Park-like values & roles. Throughout the Western USA, Canada and Alaska, vast resources are available on an impaired basis. We could truly take the imperfect above & beyond anything the 'old-school' pure-Park idea will ever deliver.

For example, our vast commercial timberlands across the West are often so ignored & disdained, they can offer a solitude & serenity that official Parks are hard-put to match. While a million or few flock to Olympic National Park, a bare few thousand venture into the approximately equal Olympic timberlands. This theme can be pursued & developed in many directions and on many levels. But it can only happen, by accepting imperfections.

Or put another way, Parks can be made part of a greater imperfect whole, but the vast imperfect 'working habitat' can't be made part of Parks. Which might be what some are hoping for...

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