JACKSON — When Yellowstone wrapped up its telecommunications plan a decade ago, the park specifically designated historic buildings like the Old Faithful Lodge and Lake Hotel cabins as places that wouldn’t be modernized with Wi-Fi technology.
Knowing those commitments, National Park Service watchdog Jeff Ruch was baffled when he read a proposal to add more than 500 antennas spread on buildings around the 2.2-million-acre park to bolster Wi-Fi connections. Among the places slated for the improved connectivity were the historic buildings that Yellowstone had previously said would go without high-speed internet connections.
“What they did a decade ago appears to have been shortsighted, and rather than redo it they’re just advancing their way into the next generation of connectivity,” said Ruch, who directs the Pacific Region of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, known as PEER.
Asked about going against the park’s own plans, Yellowstone Branch Chief of Technology Bret De Young insisted it didn’t happen. The park’s 2009 wireless plan, he said, was amended in 2018 so that Wi-Fi would be allowed in eight places previously off-limits due to historic significance (the Lake Hotel and Old Faithful Inn, both historic landmarks, were kept Wi-Fi free).
“The rationale for this change is technological advancements during the last decades,” Yellowstone wrote in a 2018 categorical exclusion form. “Currently, there is little distinction between Wi-Fi and cellular access to the internet.”
After PEER sent out a press release blasting Yellowstone for going against its plans, the park took the unusual step of countering with another press release that addressed the group’s contentions point by point.
“I appreciate the passion in which PEER pursues these important issues,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said in the release. “This proposal hasn’t been approved or finalized. Public comment is one of the biggest components of the NEPA consultation process, and that is what is happening now.”
Ruch acknowledged that he missed the memo about the changes to the Yellowstone’s telecommunications plan. But he said the park glossed over some key details.
“What the park spokespeople do not reveal is that Yellowstone amended its 2009 Wireless Plan in June 2018 without public announcement or posting the changes,” Ruch said.
The vessel Yellowstone used to change its plans, called a categorical exclusion, is a part of the National Environmental Policy Act that allows federal agencies to forgo substantive analysis for small projects or decisions. Categorical exclusions don’t require public engagement, though it’s encouraged on topics with a “high degree of public interest or uncertainty regarding potential effects,” according to the NEPA handbook.
“Regardless of whether or not you seek public comment, when using a [categorical exclusion] that requires documentation, you should consider notifying the public once the CE is approved by the superintendent,” the handbook says.
In June 2018 Dan Wenk, who was Yellowstone superintendent at the time, signed off on the park’s categorical exclusion form. Involved groups like PEER and the general public were not notified until now.
Yellowstone’s plan for Wi-Fi infrastructure additions stems from a private business, named AccessParks, that has applied to install up to 484 7- to 10-inch-wide antennas to transmit signals. The application also calls for another 39 larger antennas, ranging from 29-inch dishes to a 6-foot-wide addition to an existing tower at Old Faithful. Comments on the plans were due late last month.
Ruch says his group doesn’t oppose improving cell signals or Wi-Fi in developed parts of parks like Yellowstone.
“But Yellowstone’s posture seems to be, if it’s proposed by a telecom company it will be approved,” he said. “They’re not planning. They’re using the rhetoric of planning to say, ‘OK, okeydoke.’”
Yellowstone’s De Young, again, didn’t buy it, arguing that Yellowstone’s proposal and AccessParks’ application are not one and the same.
“There’s been a lot of change,” Yellowstone’s technology chief said. “We rejected their first application because it didn’t have enough information. They had equipment in wilderness; they had equipment in undeveloped areas. There are a lot of changes to their original proposal. This wasn’t fast-tracked by any means.”