Cell Towers in Wild Places and National Parks

Cell Towers in Wild Places and National Parks

Many of you may recall the controversy surrounding an ATT cell tower that was built near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness.  After a fight that went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the 450-foot tower was completed in 2013.  It is true that the flashing red light on top of the tower may be seen from certain areas within the BWCA.  Cellular coverage remains spotty at best, and mostly non-existent, within the wilderness itself.

Cell Towers – Good or Bad

ely mn cell phone tower

The question remains.  Should cell towers be placed near or within wild places?  The latest front in this discussion involves our National Parks.  Certain National Parks are debating whether to add cell towers in remote areas of the parks.

One of the most interesting aspects of this debate is the fact that the National Park Service does not have a national policy regarding cell tower construction.  The NPS does not track construction of cell towers within national parks nationwide.  In effect, each park superintendent must review and make a decision regarding cell tower proposals with no supporting guidance.

Recently, five cell towers were added within Yosemite National Park without any public notice or environmental review.   Supporters of adding cell towers within remote areas of National Parks argue that:

  • The cell towers help rescue teams respond to emergencies much more efficiently. The cell towers allow back country users to contact officials when an emergency occurs, and allows the rescue teams to quickly locate the person in trouble.
  • The National Parks must adapt to changing times, particularly to attract a new generation to the parks. Cellular phones allow people to share experiences with friends and family.

Those opposed to additional cell towers and expanded coverage argue that:

  • Backcountry experiences are impaired when users come across others on the phone.
  • The National Parks are losing what once made them unique. Further, cellular towers violate the mission of the NPS to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System.”

Both Sides Make Good Arguments

Both sides make valid arguments.  I would suggest that the issue regarding enhancing rescue team capabilities can be overcome with education regarding new satellite technologies such as personal locator beacons and messengers.

boundary waters tech accessories

However, the issue of attracting millennials and younger generations to the Parks is more complex and difficult to overcome.  For instance, in the Boundary Waters, we have seen a precipitous drop in younger users of the wilderness. Lack of connectivity may well play a role in this drop.  National Parks and wilderness can powerfully impact and renew people.  It does us no good, if twenty or thirty years from now, when the boomers are gone, we find the parks and wildernesses empty.

John Muir’s Wisdom

In the end, we need to discern what John Muir meant in 1915 when the National Parks were being established:

“Break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.”

Break clear away, indeed.

Paddle On. Be Free.