It was the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that opened the door to cell towers on federal lands. But that law merely required the President to establish procedures for executive agencies to use when considering applications for telecommunications facilities on federal lands.
Yellowstone officials have justified their approval of cell towers on the ground that they must “comply” with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. To the contrary, the Telecom Act does not require Yellowstone or any other park to approve a single tower. In fact, if they read the relevant provision carefully and looked at its legislative history, they would see that they had (and have) full authority to reject any proposal submitted.
Section 704(c) is the part of the Telecom Act that discusses the placement of cell towers on Federal lands, and it simply requires the President (or his designee) to draft procedures by which Federal departments and agencies “may” make Federal lands available for the placement of “new telecommunications services.” The General Services Administration published such procedures on March 29, 1996 and June 16, 1997. The National Park Service published its own guidelines and policies on July 23, 1997, and in 2000 and 2004.
Yellowstone officials did not need to consider any of the above guidelines or policies to know how to respond to applications for cell towers in Yellowstone. Members of the House Commerce Committee added Section 704(c) to the telecom bill through an amendment on May 17, 1995, and they made it very clear what they had in mind for Yellowstone. It is the only national park they specifically mentioned in the Committee report. Here’s what they wrote:
“The Committee recognizes, for example, that 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.”
These are the words of the Congressional sponsors of Section 704(c). They understood that Yellowstone would be a “prime site” for such facilities, but still rejected such development. Unfortunately, Yellowstone officials have ignored this Congressional intent and approved free-standing cell towers for the Old Faithful area, Grant Village, Elk Plaza (Mammoth Hot Springs), and at Lake Village (built October 2013). And they’re not done. Park officials support a free-standing cell tower for the top of scenic Mt. Washburn, too, where the cellular antennas are currently attached to the fire-lookout tower. That will make five free-standing cell towers in Yellowstone, despite the clear intentions of the authors of Section 704(c) of the Telecom Act.