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Group: Public in dark about cell tower plans in Grand Teton

Grand Teton National Park has inappropriately prevented the public from learning about tentative plans for more than 50 miles of fiber-optic cable and new cellphone towers at 11 locations in the majestic preserve in Wyoming, an environmental group says.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says it obtained a document through the Freedom of Information Act detailing the plan at the foot of the Teton Range.

The group’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, said Friday there’s been a pattern of national parks such as Yosemite and Great Smoky Mountains allowing new towers with little or no public notice.

Grand Teton spokesman Andrew White said the park sought public comment last summer at the outset of planning to add new cellphone towers to the two that are already in the park.

It’s the latest skirmish over how much tech should be allowed to intrude on some of the most stunning and wild places in the U.S. Parents may cringe when youngsters take more interest in their smartphones than spectacular landscapes, but nobody denies cellphone coverage makes national parks safer.

“We’re not against cell towers per se,” Ruch said. “We want to make sure they don’t needlessly sacrifice park values such as serenity, soundscape and viewsheds.”

Grand Teton is one of the busiest national parks, receiving more than 4.8 million visits in 2016. Cellphone coverage in developed areas of the park is unreliable because equipment is outdated and has been installed in piecemeal fashion over the past 20 years, according to the notice.

The group claims the document shows Grand Teton officials have made at least preliminary plans for 55 miles of fiber-optic cable and new cellphone towers in the park and neighboring John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway.

The plans provided to the public thus far have been vague, and park officials are required by law to involve the public more than they have, Ruch said.

The group filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C., alleging the National Park Service has failed to respond to its request for additional public records related to the Grand Teton cell towers.

White declined comment on the lawsuit and the document obtained, citing agency policy not to comment on litigation.

In the document shared with The Associated Press, a San Diego-based real estate appraisal firm told a potential client it received a contract from Grand Teton in December to evaluate the potential rental rates for telecom companies at the proposed cellphone towers in the park.

Cellphone towers already exist in the park at Jackson Hole Airport, the only commercial airport located in a national park, and Signal Mountain.

If approved, 80-foot single-pole towers could go up at Signal Mountain and 10 other locations between Moose, where park headquarters is located, and Flagg Ranch on the Rockefeller Parkway, according to the document.

“If what fragmentary documents we have are correct, Grand Teton is on the verge of the biggest single addition of wireless equipment of any national park in the country,” Ruch said.

Grand Teton officials have been receiving right-of-way applications for fiber-optic cable and wireless communications facilities since 2013, the park service said in last summer’s notice of planning for more cellphone facilities.

Improved cellphone service would improve emergency services, park administration, concessionaire operations, scientific research and public education, the notice said.

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