Washington, DC — The National Park Service is asking all its superintendents to report where existing wireless communication facilities are located in national parks, according to a memo released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The National Park Service is collecting the information as telecommunications companies across the country are approaching parks for rights-of-way and other permits to erect cell towers and wireless equipment.
In a May 25, 2004 memo to all park superintendents, Deputy NPS Director Donald Murphy asked for an “inventory of all the existing wireless communications facilities” on park property, including cell towers, radio antennas and microwave transmitters. On April 2, 2004, the Park Service admitted, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from PEER, “At the present time there is no database or inventory of cell sites or telecommunication equipment permitted in units of the NPS.” “While collecting the information is a good, though belated, first step, the Park Service is still evading the central question, which is whether and where these facilities are appropriate on national park lands,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that only one of the 397 units of the national park system (Golden Gate National Recreation Area) has a plan for siting cell phone towers and other telecom facilities. “The current philosophy of the Park Service is to grant commercial permits first and then perhaps question the implications later.”
When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened federal lands to tower construction, Congress directed the National Park Service to develop appropriate regulations for preventing unsightly proliferation of towers. But the NPS does not have clear policies to help superintendents decide what is appropriate or not. As a result, decisions vary from park to park or over time in the same park as the superintendent changes.
Moreover, cell tower siting decisions are often made in a vacuum, as NPS routinely fails to notify the public about applications to erect new cell towers. Recently, for example, the public learned of applications to build three cell towers in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park from the news media, not from public notices.
“By both its failure to plan and its deference to commercial concerns, the National Park Service is on a default path to blanketing the great outdoors with wireless coverage, even in the depths of the wilds,” added Ruch. “There should be an informed, national debate before the Park Service sacrifices the solitude and the scenery of our parks to the marketing plans of telecom companies.”