The famous Mount Rainier has prepared an environmental assessment to allow Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T to extend coverage, but some aren’t happy about it.
The park, which encompasses 230,000 acres of the Cascades mountain range in Washington state, has prepared an environmental assessment for a proposal to allow Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T to affix a wireless antenna to the park’s Jackson visitor center.
The antenna would extend coverage around Paradise, a popular destination for visitors known as one of the snowiest places on Earth, but not to the top of the mountain. The proposal has sparked a contentious debate about whether access to smartphones enhances or diminishes the great outdoors.
Just 100 miles south of Seattle, the park is nevertheless remote: 97% is designated wilderness. The park received 492 comments on the proposal during an earlier stage of the planning process, and received 249 in favor and 241 opposed.
Proponents of cell service argue that it would improve safety in a park that conducts 40 to 50 search and rescue missions each year. One potential benefit is that the park could send real-time information about weather or other hazards to visitors.
But the environmental assessment points out that accessibility can be a mixed bag. Park staff use two-way radios to communicate, and will continue to do so even if the cell antenna is approved. And the study notes that access to cell service “has the potential to increase confidence and risk taking by backcountry travelers relying on digital communication devices rather than traditional methods”.
Access to cell service on roadways can also increase distracted driving, the assessment notes, a safety hazard in its own right.
For opponents of the plan, cellular service is an invisible but unwelcome desecration of nature.
“The point of wilderness is that it’s supposed to be free from the accoutrements of civilization,” said Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has campaigned against cell towers in national parks across the country. “They are extending the electronic tendrils of commercialization deep into designated wilderness.”
The park is soliciting public comment on the proposal until 19 July. According to the Seattle Times, park management will then submit its recommendation to a regional director of the National Park Service, who will make the final decision.
The prevalence of technology in once remote, wilderness areas has been a subject of increasing concern for wilderness advocates. A study released in May found that noise pollution from human activities was pervasive in protected wildlife areas in the US. Park rangers have expressed concern about drones encroaching on the airspace of national parks, and about the unscrupulous behavior of visitors seeking to capture a viral Instagram shot.
Referencing the sobriquet of national parks as “nature’s cathedrals”, Ruch shuddered at the idea of people playing Pokémon or streaming movies on the slopes of Rainier. “It’s like rollerskating through the Sistine Chapel.”