Critics oppose extending cell service into Bridger-Teton backcountry

By Mike Koshmrl

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — Residents and visitors wanting to preserve wilderness experiences are rebuking Grand Teton National Park’s plan to wire-up — casting cell service deeper into the backcountry.

Park officials have supported a telecom industry plan, with some changes, to add 13 cell towers at nine sites that would be fed by 62 miles of fiber-optic cable running from Moose to Flagg Ranch. Today, two permanent cell towers stand in the park: at Jackson Hole Airport and atop Signal Mountain.

Most people reached for this story had no problem with plans to improve the sometimes-tenuous cell signals at developed frontcountry sites like Jenny Lake. But longtime residents like Snake River boatman Jim Stanford worry that too many people are shrugging at an infrastructure overhaul that could fundamentally alter backcountry adventuring up and down Jackson Hole.

“Are we losing something here?” Stanford asked. “Are these places becoming less wild for the sake of modern convenience?

“Really, it comes down to values,” he said. “What’s more important, being able to make a dinner reservation while you’re on the hiking trail? Or listening to the sounds of birds?”

The park’s plan, which has been kicked around internally for six years, is not a done deal. An environmental assessment outlining the project, and its expected impacts, was published last month. Comments are still being accepted, though they’re due today.

The proposed infrastructure, which would run down the Teton Park Road corridor, is unique in its scope: The plan is the largest expansion of cell towers ever in a national park, according to the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The singular purpose is to shore up cell signals in the frontcountry, Teton park Project Management Chief Rusty Mizelle said. Although cell companies are not being asked to reduce signal “spillover” into the backcountry, the gained coverage will not be comprehensive, he said.

“If you’re in North Cascade, you’re not going to be streaming Netflix,” Mizelle told the News&Guide in March. “The vast majority of our wilderness areas, especially the key backcountry areas, the model shows that they’re won’t be consistent coverage. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a point where you will get coverage, but turn your cellphone off.”

Teton park houses 225 square miles of recommended or potential wilderness, nearly half its total acreage. Projected coverage maps show that the largest cell signal incursions into the proposed wilderness would be in the southern Tetons, along Jackson Lake’s western shoreline and throughout much of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. In the Teton Wilderness on national forest, the spillover would trickle into places like Pilgrim Mountain.

The projection maps are obviously flawed, however. Places like the Tetons’ iconic Cathedral Group, where signals today are strong, show up as unconnected.

“We want to give this to people so they have an expectation of where they have coverage,” Mizelle said, “but every time it’s a fishing expedition.”

Idaho Falls resident and regular Grand Teton sightseer Jack Evans is among those concerned technology is about to direct the visitor experience toward a turn for the worse.

“If the first bite is a cell tower, what’s the second bite going to be?” Evans said. “A waterslide at Bradley Lake?

“I understand why they want people to be able to communicate for emergencies, but this particular park is not that big,” he said. “I don’t think the benefits come anywhere near the cost of it.”

Evans wants park officials to “do away with the whole thing.”

Franz Camenzind is a longtime resident who would also like to see unconnected swaths of Jackson Hole preserved.

“I like the idea that you can go into the backcountry and actually have an experience where you can isolate yourself from the rest of the world,” Camenzind said. “Providing extensive coverage to the general public, I don’t think it’s their responsibility. I think it’s contrary to the value that natural areas and national parks can provide to the public.”

Camenzind’s hunch was that vastly improved connectivity would influence wilderness travelers’ assessments of risk.

“There’s a chance that people will be taking chances in the backcountry with the idea that, if something goes wrong, they can dial 911 and within a half an hour have a helicopter rescue them,” he said. “I think that takes away from the backcountry wilderness experience.”

Teton County Search and Rescue Chief Advisor Cody Lockhart confirmed that cell service has already fundamentally altered rescue operations over the last decade. Nowadays, he said, using “cellphone forensics” to determine locations is first responders’ initial move when they’re alerted to an accident.

“A decade ago, most of our incidents started out as a search, and then became a rescue,” Lockhart said. “Now most of our calls are to known locations, because someone is able to get some kind of service. That’s definitely saved lives. We have rescues in Teton County every year where a phone call made the difference.”

As a rescuer, Lockhart declined to stake a position on the park’s plans.

“Our stance is we’re agnostic, but it definitely changes the dynamic,” he said.