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Critics Sound Alarm as Tech Firms Eye Yellowstone

by Brendan Coyne

Following the chance revelation of a closed-door meeting on future wireless efforts in one of America’s greatest national parks, environmentalists say the public deserves greater say over corporations’ impact on parklands.

May 11, 2006 – Recently uncovered documents reveal that quiet plans to expand the commercial footprint in one of the nation’s most famous public parks are spreading to the communications industry.

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Over the last week, evidence has emerged that National Parks Service (NPS) officials met out of the public eye with telecommunications company representatives to craft plans for expanding wireless communication service in Yellowstone National Park. The plan worries environmentalists, who say it could pose new dangers to human and wildlife in the over 2.2 million-acre park.

Yellowstone, which already hosts five separate cellular transmission sites, according to NPS, may soon be home to many more, along with the requisite access roads, power sources and lights needed to build and maintain them. According to notes from a spring 2005 meeting between park officials and representatives of seven telecommunications companies, as many as ten companies could provide wireless telephone, Internet and other services in the park.

News of the plans broke quietly last week when Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a pro-worker conservation organization, released documentary evidence of the 2005 meeting. The minutes and notes from the meeting suggest that Park Service staff listened to representatives from several telecommunications companies discuss the logistics of expanding electronic communications technology throughout Yellowstone. PEER obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of the outfit.

No conservation groups were in attendance, and the meeting was never open to the public.

"We didn’t even know there was a meeting when we filed the request," Ruch told The NewStandard. "As you can imagine, when we got the documents, I was surprised to find that NPS had been meeting in private with these companies and essentially working out the details with no public input."

PEER contends that the March 31, 2005 meeting violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires committees and other bodies formed by the executive branch to provide public notice of and publish agendas for all meetings. The group has requested an investigation by the Department of the Interior’s inspector general, according to Ruch, but had not, as of press time, received a response. The Interior Department oversees the Park Service.

Verizon Wireless, Qwest and several regional providers attended the meeting, along with seven NPS representatives and a handful of people from other commercial interests, meeting minutes show. No conservation groups were in attendance, and the meeting was never open to the public.

"We think that NPS ought to have publicly developed plans if it is going to move forward," Ruch said. "The fact is, whatever they are going to put forth came about without any public input at all."

In an e-mail exchange with TNS, Yellowstone spokesperson Stacy Vallie disputed the assertion that the meeting was in violation of any laws. She said the get-together was not an advisory committee, which would need to be public under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, but instead was "informational." Vallie wrote, "A public scoping comment period will be announced within the next 30 days, at which time the public will have the full opportunity to comment on the issues and alternatives to be addressed in a wireless communications plan environmental assessment."

PEER contends that the meeting violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Vallie added that current cellular sites provide 9-1-1 service and "a faster reporting time for accidents, emergencies and resource concerns, and a quicker response time by emergency staff."

Verizon Wireless spokesperson for the western region Bob Kelley told TNS he could provide no specifics about what happened at the meeting and said his company "has been and will continue to work with the National Park Service on the best way to provide service" around Yellowstone. Kelley said he had no information about the genesis of the meeting and that he is "not aware of what the schedule is moving forward."

A day after making the meeting documents public, PEER attempted to stoke the opposition a little more by revealed a 2004 government report showing that a transmitter tower on Yellowstone’s Mt. Washburn was emitting levels of radio frequency (RF) radiation in excess of federal standards.

Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the Federal Communications Commission is responsible for setting maximum RF exposure levels for workers and the public. It maintains two separate standards, one for controlled exposure and the other for uncontrolled. The second standard is more stringent and applies both to Yellowstone workers and visitors, according to the report produced by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Exposure to RF radiation can cause neurological and reproductive problems and is widely believed to be carcinogenic, according to OSHA. Spokesperson Bill Wright said OSHA, which sets standards for workplace health and safety, recommends that tighter standards than those set by the FCC be followed. The agency also mandates that warning signs be placed near sites emitting RF radiation and requires that workers be trained about the hazards of the RF radiation.

The OSHA assessment of the Mt. Washburn tower showed RF levels above those allowed by the FCC for non-occupational areas in three separate spots outside of the Mt. Washburn tower. Asked about OSHA’s findings, Vallie said, "We are currently following all OSHA recommendations from the June 10, 2004 report."

Still, Ruch of PEER said questions remain about how well-controlled RF radiation levels will be if Yellowstone is laced with new cell towers. And he said PEER intends to raise the question in a lawsuit challenging NPS to develop a comprehensive plan for the expanded use of public parklands later this year.

"This is certainly going to be one of the many issues we bring up in the suit," Ruch said. "It is an indictment of NPS for abdicating their responsibility to be good stewards of public lands and conscientious employers."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Article originally appeared in the May 11, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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