16 March 2020 | By Jimmy Tobias | High Country News |
With Trump’s blessing, cell towers are infiltrating protected public lands across the West.
“Last September, Jim Stanford climbed onto a big flat raft, shoved off from shore, and paddled into the swift current of the Snake River in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. It was one of those early Western mornings when winter lets you know that it will soon arrive. Squat clouds sat in the sky. A crisp frost clung to the foliage. And six tourists shivered in their seats beside Stanford as his boat picked up speed.
The visitors had traveled across the country for this two-hour voyage into the heart of the park. Stanford, a grizzled 49-year-old river guide, was determined to dazzle them with the land’s magic. As the boat turned a bend, a bull elk materialized out of the morning mist, its body slumped, its face submerged, its massive rack jutting above the current like the splintered mast of some sunken ship. It was dead.
Stanford’s clients clamored to the boat’s edge and pulled out their smartphones to snap photos of the scene before the river ushered them downstream. And from there, it was but a few more moments before one of the visitors had progressed from taking pictures to scrolling through his screen, struggling in vain with the park’s very spotty service. There were zero, one, two bars of coverage at best — not enough to send a text or upload a photo. The tourists had little choice but to experience the park in analog fashion.
An hour later, the float trip ended and Stanford’s boat came to a stop near Grand Teton headquarters. The visitor who had been fiddling with his smartphone during the voyage now took the opportunity to share his thoughts about cell coverage at Grand Teton. “Service at this place sucks,” he said. And then he explained his circumstances. “Even on vacation they expect you to be accessible at all times,” the man lamented, speaking of his IT industry employer. “Some people expect the electronic handcuffs on you at all times.”
As it turns out, the National Park Service is paying close attention to such sentiments. In fact, it is presently pursuing a massive expansion of cellular and broadband facilities at Grand Teton National Park. Working in tandem with major telecom companies like AT&T and its agents, the agency is planning to permit the installation of more than 60 miles of fiber-optic cable, as well as at least nine new cell tower sites scattered throughout the park. The plan, which is awaiting a final permit, would blanket much of Grand Teton with new and stronger coverage. It is shaping up to be the largest single expansion of telecommunications infrastructure in national park history.
Some see these proposed cell towers and the better coverage they promise as a positive development that will assist search-and-rescue missions and improve access for an American public increasingly reliant on digital technologies. But others view the proposal as a serious threat. Stanford, the river guide, is among them. He relishes the remote corners of Grand Teton where his cellphone signal fades. He likes living close to “wild land” where Facebook, Twitter and Instagram hold little sway. There’s something comforting, he says, about places that haven’t been absorbed into the ever-expanding coverage maps of Verizon, AT&T and the other telecom conglomerates that control this country’s wireless waves.
“We need to unplug, and we need places we can unplug, and if not here, where?” says Stanford, who also serves as a councilman in the nearby city of Jackson.
There aren’t many places people can go these days to escape completely from the ubiquitous influence of social media, smartphones, Big Tech and telecom companies. The blank spots on the coverage maps are constantly shrinking, though not equally, and not everywhere. In many cases, the expansion of broadband coverage is necessary; telecom providers too often underserve rural areas, tribal nations and Black and Latino communities, for instance. Their exclusion from reliable coverage has a negative impact on everything from local economies to public health.
The United States is struggling to remedy these inequities. At the same time, there are also spaces — national parks, wilderness areas and other public lands — that some believe should remain refuges from the digital world. Such places provide a final opportunity to preserve small pockets of smartphone-free open space in the United States — landscapes where you can still escape the electronic handcuffs. But they are beginning to disappear.
The telecom giants — AT&T, Verizon and more — are pushing to build out infrastructure on protected public lands across the country. These corporations hope to extend their reach into some of the most iconic and remote corners of the United States.And they have found a close collaborator in the federal government, which is working alongside industry operatives to open many national parks and other public lands to commercial wireless service. With a sprawling network of cell towers soon to be installed within its boundaries, Grand Teton National Park is a testing ground.
IN 1996, AMERICA’S MEDIA landscape experienced a seismic transformation. That year, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act into law, putting an end to the New Deal-era legal regime that governed the country’s radio, TV and telephone providers. An enormous piece of legislation heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists, the new law helped spur industry consolidation and officially opened federal lands to cellphone towers and similar projects. It actively encouraged the expansion of telecom infrastructure on public lands, requiring agencies like the National Park Service to consider applications from corporations that want to install wireless facilities on the federal domain. It was the beginning of an industry bonanza. Yet there were always meant to be some limitations.
In a report published in 1995 by the House Commerce Committee, which played a central role in crafting the Telecommunications Act, Congress recognized that some federal lands, like parks and wild areas, should be off-limits to wireless infrastructure. The “use of the Washington Monument, Yellowstone National Park, or a pristine wildlife sanctuary, while perhaps prime sites for an antenna and other facilities, are not appropriate and use of them would be contrary to environmental, conservation and public safety laws,” the committee wrote.
Don Barger, who led the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southeast office for many years, relied on such arguments when he led a brief campaign to block the construction of cell towers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the mid-’90s.
“There was a proposal for three towers along the only road that runs through the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Barger told me recently. “ I … contacted my representatives and senators … two of them sent a letter to the Interior Secretary, basically saying: ‘This is the stupidest idea we have ever heard.’ ”
Eventually, Barger prevailed: The proposal was withdrawn.
But political, economic and social circumstances are very different these days. In recent decades, the U.S. has witnessed the rise and consolidation of enormous media conglomerates like AT&T, Verizon and, just last year, a proposed $26 billion merger between Sprint and T-Mobile. At the same time, smartphones and social media companies have revolutionized digital communications and created insatiable consumer demand for high-speed wireless coverage. Mobile data traffic has been on a rocket-fueled ascent. We increasingly depend on Big Tech and the telecom companies, using their devices and data for banking, shopping, navigation, transportation, work, socializing, even sex. And so, there is an ongoing bipartisan push to expand broadband coverage into the corners of the nation where politicians and corporations alike perceive a higher demand, including many protected public lands.
The Trump administration, in concert with telecom lobbyists, has made the installation of new cellular and broadband infrastructure a priority. Among other things, President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission has limited the authority of local governments to stop such development. The administration is also working to “streamline” environmental reviews and speed up the permitting process that lets companies build telecom facilities on federal land. A 2018 Interior Department report stated the government’s objectives explicitly: “By making it easier for private industry to co-locate or build out new broadband infrastructure on public lands, the (Department of the Interior) can play a strong role in increasing connectivity throughout the United States.”
The impact of such policies is already apparent in many national parks. In Yosemite, agency officials have quietly sanctioned six new cell towers in recent years. In Sequoia, Verizon recently received permission to erect a 138-foot cell tower designed to look like a tree. At Mount Rainier, the big telecom providers are pushing for the construction of a wireless antenna atop a popular visitor center. At the Grand Canyon, the Park Service is proposing to permit as many as five new telecommunication towers along the canyon’s rim. And in Yellowstone, proposed infrastructure improvements would “multiply the park’s wireless capacity by 38 times,” according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
But no park better illustrates this trend than Grand Teton, where agency officials want to build a string of cell towers that will run most of the length of the 45-mile-long park. The proposed facilities will be confined to developed areas like Jenny Lake, Colter Bay and Flagg Ranch, but maps of the project show that broadband coverage will spill into significant swaths of the park’s backcountry, including some of the most remote corners of the continental United States. If the plan comes to fruition, Stanford’s clients will no longer have to struggle so hard to send emails or upload Instagram photos during voyages down the Snake River.
THE AFTERNOON FOLLOWING his dawn float trip, I sat at an outdoor cafe near Grand Teton headquarters with Stanford, sipping coffee and soaking in some scarce sunshine, as he expressed his disdain for the park’s massive cell tower expansion. He admitted that he may come off as antiquated, but he harbors a deep unease about the ever-spreading influence of mobile technologies and their psychological, social and environmental impacts. In fact, he’s angry about it, and at times his big blue eyes narrowed into daggers as we talked.
“We are tethered to this technology 24/7,” he said. “Even while floating a wild and scenic river in a national park, one of the most majestic pieces of river you can float anywhere in the world, people are still tethered to their phones.
“That is the trend. That is where we are going as a society,” he said. “And the Park Service wants to enable that.”
A steady drip of studies and reports in recent years offer some context for Stanford’s concerns. One 2017 study warned that prolonged cellphone use can alter the curvature of our spines. And a 2019 survey by Common Sense Media, an advocacy group that promotes safe technology use for children, found that 45% of parents and 39% of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices. The survey also found that one out of every three teens and one in four parents are having their sleep regularly interruptedby notifications from mobile devices. Indeed, 29% of teens actually sleep with their phones. Another study has concluded that teenagers who spend five or more hours a day using digital technologies are 71% more likely to suffer from at least one risk factor for suicide.
On the environmental front, telecom infrastructure can prove deadly for wildlife. In a 2014 letter, for instance, the Interior Department’s own Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance cited studies showing that as many as 6.8 million birds may die every year in North America due to collisions with cell towers. The letter also referenced the harmful impact of radiation on birds nesting near cell tower sites: “Study results have documented nest and site abandonment, plumage deterioration, locomotion problems, reduced survivor ship and death,” it reported.
A slew of prominent Silicon Valley insiders, meanwhile, have come forward to blow the whistle on Big Tech’s inventions. In a book published in 2018, for instance, the internet pioneer Jaron Lanier denounced the pernicious political and psychological influence of major social media platforms, which he describes as “behavior modification empires” that intentionally addict, manipulate and spy on their users, all while spreading political misinformation, stoking economic insecurity, destroying local journalism, and providing our personal data to unseen third-parties. Lanier advises his readers to delete all social media accounts immediately.
Millennials, too, are chafing at the digital bonds of Big Tech and the telecom giants. In her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell encourages people to fight “the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy and distraction.” Odell sees non-commercial public spaces like parks and gardens as havens from the “permanent state of frenzy” that constant connection incites.
Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff’s new book has a name for the economic system that has fueled the rise of smartphones, social media and tech behemoths: “surveillance capitalism,” which she describes as a “new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales.” With their dazzling digital services and profit-seeking snooping, Google, Facebook, Verizon and more draw us ever-deeper into their ecosystem of intrusive corporate surveillance, threatening our right to self-determination, privacy and “sanctuary,” she writes. And the emergence of 5G wireless, wearable devices, and the so-called “internet of things,” she argues, could soon allow these companies to create a world of nonstop behavioral monitoring, conditioning and control — “a world of no escape.”
“60% of Bureau of Indian Education schools lack access to adequate digital broadband.”
But right now it’s a world of no escape for some, and not for others: The telecom industry’s business model means that many low-income rural and tribal communities are completely shut out of adequate cellular and broadband coverage even as more populous places enjoy an abundance of service. In Indian Country, 63% of households on tribal land lack high-speed services, says Kevin Allis, the CEO of the National Congress of American Indians. “And even more painful is the fact that 60% of Bureau of Indian Education schools lack access to adequate digital broadband.”
The FCC estimates that at least 21 million Americans do not have broadband service. The vast majority live in rural communities, which often lack reliable cellular coverage, according to Lindsay Stern, a policy fellow at the advocacy group Public Knowledge. “Major carriers have a bottom line, and if they don’t get a return on investment, they often will not deploy in certain areas — and that is legal. They can decide where they want to deploy,” she says. “But broadband is an essential service of the 21st century, just like phones were an essential service of the 20th century. We need to treat broadband as an essential communications service, because that is the reality.” Currently, the FCC does not do this.
Still, even as policymakers and advocates labor to close the digital divide in rural and tribal communities, the federal government and telecom interests are committing their resources to new infrastructure in high-profile landscapes where very few people live full-time.
Some critics believe that industry and government don’t have their priorities straight — that their approach to broadband development is uneven and unfair. At the same time, some say that we should limit the telecom industry’s expansionary ambitions, especially on protected landscapes. Stanford, for example — a child of suburban New York who followed a friend to Wyoming in his early 20s and soon found a job working in outdoor recreation — says places like Grand Teton are easily degraded.
“So many people think of this area as so wild, they think there is so much wilderness and everything,” he told me. “Well, I walked the Teton Crest in the moonlight, nearly 20 years ago now, and what quickly becomes apparent is you can see the lights encroaching on either side — the lights of civilization — and you realize what a thin, fragile, precious strip Grand Teton National Park really is.”
Undeveloped landscapes “are besieged on all fronts,” he added later. Why “compromise” what remains with towers and cables and the seductive lure of smart devices?
THE AFTERNOON AFTER Stanford’s float trip, I visited national park headquarters in Moose, Wyoming, a tiny town with front-row views of the Teton Range. We could see its formidable peaks, which first stabbed the sky almost 10 million years ago, right outside the corner conference room where I met Denise Germann, an agency spokesperson dressed in classic Park Service garb. Rusty Mizelle, a tall reed of a man who coordinated the Grand Teton cell tower plan, soon joined us. Together, in the shadow of the mountains, they explained their agency’s rationale for letting the telecom companies set up shop on protected public lands.
It all started back in 2013, when the Park Service convened a meeting with AT&T, Verizon and other telecom interests that wanted to lay fiber-optic cable and build cell towers in Grand Teton. During the meeting, the telecom companies pulled out a coverage map that showed “a big spot, a big chunk, in northwest Wyoming, where there was nothing.”
“They came to us and said, ‘Well, we’re interested in filling our map,’ ” Mizelle recounted. The Park Service had its own priorities: “One is our day-to-day mission-critical business,” including search and rescue operations, Germann said. “The other is recruitment and retention of employees,” she added. The third “is just visitor experience and visitor expectations. More and more people are looking for this sort of access.”
With new cell towers, it will be easier to manage the park and hire employees, and it will be easier to satisfy the 3 to 4 million people who visit the park each year.
And so the Park Service and Big Telecom teamed up. AT&T and the other telecom companies appointed as their agent a New Jersey-based infrastructure firm called Diamond Communications, which builds cell towers around the nation. Together, the Park Service and Diamond scouted locations and crafted a plan that calls for a slew of 80-foot monopole towers, a sprawling fiber-optic network and more. The Park Service then initiated an environmental and cultural analysis of the project, as required by law. It also consulted with numerous tribal nations, including the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, whose homeland includes all of Grand Teton National Park.
In a recent interview, Joshua Mann, the director of the Eastern Shoshone’s historic preservation office, put the cell tower project and the park itself in proper context. “We had several bands of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe that hunted there and also camped there,” he tells me. The Eastern Shoshone and others, he says, “were pretty much driven from those lands as soon as the park boundaries were established.” Whatever the controversies swirling around federal lands today, many of these lands have their origin in violent dispossession, a fact that legacy conservation organizations have largely failed to grapple with. As for the specifics of Grand Teton’s telecom plan, Mann says the Eastern Shoshone are not opposed, though the tribe is concerned that new infrastructure could impact cultural resources, including prayer circles and historic campsites located near the project zone. If cell tower construction proceeds, Mann said, the Eastern Shoshone will safeguard their interests.
Mizelle and his team ultimately completed their environmental and cultural analysis of the cell tower project in August 2019 and issued a “finding of no significant impact.” The report concludes that the new cell towers and fiber-optic cables will not negatively affect natural or cultural resources in Grand Teton. Telecom companies are now awaiting a final permit from the Interior Department, expected this year.
During our meeting, Germann pulled out maps of the project and laid them on the conference room table. In pastel colors of blue and green splashed over the park’s topography, the maps showed that new cell coverage will not just inundate developed areas in Grant Teton, but will also spill into significant portions of the park’s backcountry, including remote areas that are managed as federal wilderness. Germann acknowledged that some spillover will happen but insists “the intent of the entire plan is not to have cell coverage in the backcountry.”
Documents produced during the agency’s environmental analysis show, though, that the Park Service could have prevented some cell coverage from spilling into the Grand Teton’s backcountry but decided not to. In an appendix contained in its own environmental analysis, the agency explains that “although the technology exists to limit the spillover of cell phone frequency into backcountry and wilderness areas, the NPS determined the potential increase in overall coverage of cellular service is acceptable in these areas.”
Asked about this discrepancy, Mizelle said any spillover that occurs in the backcountry will likely be unreliable and weak. “We don’t think people will be able to stream Netflix while walking up into Cascade Canyon because of what we are providing,” he said. “And frankly, if people choose to do that, that is human behavior. It is not the radio waves’ fault.”
“We don’t think people will be able to stream Netflix while walking up into Cascade Canyon because of what we are providing. And frankly, if people choose to do that, that is human behavior. It is not the radio waves’ fault.”
The Park Service says that all of this — the years of planning, the infrastructure build out, the backcountry spillover — is ultimately about meeting the needs of visitors and employees. It is what people want. Germann herself believes it should proceed, both for personal and professional reasons. She lives in the park and says she has very spotty service at her home. “Sometimes I have to go to the corner of the room to find it, and sometimes I have to go outside to find it,” she said. Germann is a public affairs officer whose job involves keeping visitors aware of road closures and winter storms and other unforeseen events, so the bad cell service impacts her job performance in a real way. “I don’t have the coverage to be as responsive as I could be,” she added, noting that other park employees have similar frustrations.
The Park Service, though, has not provided any official survey or dataset that supports its belief that a substantial number of visitors desire more coverage. Germann acknowledged that the agency’s evidence is still mostly anecdotal.
THE MORNING AFTER MY MEETING with Germann, Stanford and I struggled to find a parking spot near Jenny Lake, one of Grand Teton’s most popular tourist attractions. Even on a Friday in September, during the so-called “off season,” the parking areas were glutted with vehicles. The campgrounds around the lake were also packed. Commercial jets loaded with incoming tourists occasionally descended overhead on their way to Jackson Hole airport — the only major airport in the country that sits inside a national park, as Stanford ruefully reminded me on multiple occasions. On this particular morning, Grand Teton felt a little bit like Disney World — full lots, big crowds, minimal vacancies and a $35 entrance fee.
On this particular morning, Grand Teton felt a little bit like Disney World — full lots, big crowds, minimal vacancies and a $35 entrance fee.
Eventually, we decided to ditch Jenny Lake and head north to quieter country. Farther up the road, we turned into a pull-off that looks out on the Teton Range. It was a lesson in contrasts: To our right was the less developed portion of the park — few trails, few campgrounds, few visitors, just the rugged northern half of the Teton front, where one can find solitude, open land and the occasional grizzly bear. Much of it is de facto wilderness. Back to our left, on the other hand, the Jenny Lake complex was exceptionally busy. Stanford, citing a favorite nature writer, called the latter area “a sacrifice zone.”
Together, these two areas of Grand Teton reflect the Park Service’s dual mission. In each national park, the agency is required to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The mission requires the park to both conserve and entertain, to provide protection and access — two mandates that often clash.
For Stanford, the ultimate question is whether all of Grand Teton will become a “sacrifice zone,” its only purpose to cater to visitors, or whether some portion of the park will remain as wild as possible. This question is at the heart of his cell tower angst. “It is one thing to have (cell coverage) concentrated in these sacrifice zones and these developed areas,” he told me, “but it is another to have it just beamed everywhere.”
There are some, though, who want to make our parks more commercial, more developed, more like Disney World, and they have the ear of President Donald Trump’s Interior Department.
In 2019, news broke that the Interior Department is mulling a proposal to supercharge the Park Service’s drift toward commercialization. The proposal, which was crafted by an Interior Department advisory committee whose members include corporate concessionaires like Delaware North, Aramark and the National Parks Hospitality Association, calls for more private management of Park Service campgrounds nationwide. The plan’s proponents want the agency to raise camping fees, end some discounts for senior citizens, increase WiFi connectivity, and even allow food trucks and Amazon deliveries at certain park campgrounds. They want more contracts, more profits, more industrial tourism. Conservation groups have denounced the plan as an effort to effectively privatize national park facilities.
At the same time, the Trump administration is working closely with telecom interests to facilitate cell tower construction on federal land. In 2017, Trump’s FCC convened a working group that included representatives from telecom companies, infrastructure developers and key federal agencies, including the Interior Department. This working group published a report in January 2018 that calls on federal agencies to speed up permitting for telecom infrastructure on public land and exempt some broadband projects from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, among many other proposals.
Consistent with the Telecommunications Act, the group wrote, “applications to place communications facilities should be approved unless they are determined, on the basis of all relevant evidence, to be in direct and complete conflict with an agency’s mission.” In sum: The group recommended that federal land managers should green-light a lot more telecom projects, and do so lickety-split.
Jonathan Adelstein, a telecom industry advocate, served as the working group’s co-chair. He is the leader of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, which represents companies like Diamond Communications and spent more than $1.5 million lobbying in Washington, D.C., over the last two years.
“We made our report and it is up to the FCC, and White House and other agencies to implement (our recommendations). I feel there is a good faith effort to do so,” he says, citing Grand Teton’s telecom plan as an example of the government’s eagerness to build more wireless infrastructure on federal land.
In response to those who oppose more cell towers at national parks, Adelstein offers this retort: “Why should a handful of naysayers have the right to dictate for everyone when they can connect to wireless broadband or connect to emergency services?”
Critics of cell tower development in parks, for their part, see the influence of corporations and concessionaires on federal policy as the ultimate source of the problem.
“The commercial interests are winning, the lobbying groups are winning, so these are the kinds of things that are happening all the time now,” said Joan Anzelmo, a retired Park Service official. She lives near Grand Teton National Park and rejects its cell tower plan. She believes the agency’s environmental review of the cell tower project was inadequate. “I was disappointed that Grand Teton did an environmental analysis and not an environmental impact statement,” she said. ‘This is a major project with lots of physical impacts” on the park, but under the Trump administration there is an overwhelming pressure to “say yes to everything.”
“It’s almost as if the Park Service has become a subsidiary of AT&T.”
Jeff Ruch, a staffer at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group that has criticized cell tower development in parks, agrees. “It’s almost as if the Park Service has become a subsidiary of AT&T,” he told me. His organization believes that the agency, in its haste to fulfill the desires of broadband providers, has violated federal laws and policies that govern telecom infrastructure on public land. Last year, PEER asked the Interior Department’s Inspector General to investigate the matter. The office launched a probe and, in July 2019, issued a report. It wasn’t pretty. Investigators found that the Park Service did not maintain an accurate inventory of cell towers on parklands. The agency had also failed in some cases to collect the correct amount of fees for telecom right-of-way permits, while in other cases, it couldn’t provide evidence that it adequately conducted environment reviews for telecom projects.
“The root of the problem is a Park Service embrace of cellular coverage without any critical analysis, outsourcing its resource protection role to the telecom industry,” said PEER’s executive director, Tim Whitehouse, in a statement last year. “In short, the (Inspector General) found that the Park Service is illegally subsidizing the telecom industry to the detriment of the parks.”
BACK IN TETON LAST SEPTEMBER,I sat with Stanford as he described one of his favorite places on the planet. With the ancient, weathered face of the mountain range in front of us, he pulled out a map, and pointed to an area near the park’s northern boundary where the landscape dips into a burned-out basin before rising again to meet the Yellowstone plateau. This particular hunk of land, he said, is some of the “wildest country left” on earth.
Stanford describes Teton as the sort of place that “stirs up things deep inside of you, and you have to rely on that, and it is fundamentally human.” It is a “tonic for our souls.”
And yet, according to coverage maps, much of this untrammeled landscape will be blanketed with new cell and broadband service should the agency’s telecom plan come to fruition. “I see the tentacles of these technologies spreading,” Stanford told me, “and that is why I have been kind of rebelling against it.”
“There is so little left,” he said. “There is so little truly wild country left.”