Growing the Grid in Glacier

Citing safety for employees and visitors, Glacier National Park considers adding cell towers to improve coverage, with public-scoping comments open until March 9

By Tristan Scott
A visitor takes in views of the Aurora Borealis over Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on May 28, 2017. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

In 1888, when John Muir cautioned his wife that “only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness,” he hadn’t experienced the modern convenience of push notifications.

He certainly hadn’t imagined the complex demands of communication in the 21st century. And while “unplugging” and “going off grid” remains a fairly elusive state of existence even in this far-flung corner of the country, it will soon become even more unusual if a National Park Service proposal to expand cellular coverage in some corners of Glacier National Park is approved.

As Glacier Park crafts its plan to improve cell service by adding infrastructure, including new towers, officials are seeking public comment, which will surely include some opposition. Historically, opponents have argued the presence of towers and other infrastructure erodes the wilderness experience and mars the view-shed of a place that’s supposed to be set aside as a proxy for the world’s natural state.

Still, the reality of telecommunication in the 21st century coupled with record annual visitation begets the expectation of services where they once weren’t, like on the shores of Lake McDonald or in backcountry lodges.

According to a scoping plan released last week by Glacier National Park officials, improvements to telecommunications inside the park’s boundaries would also increase employee and visitor safety, help meet administrative needs, allow for better monitoring of cultural and natural resources, improve visitor services, and help maintain infrastructure and utilities, “among other critical functions.”

Under the plan, the park would consider installing microwave links at Many Glacier, Two Medicine, East Glacier, and possibly Huckleberry Lookout; install Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones at the Polebridge Ranger Station; and a Local Area Network (LAN) at the Walton Ranger Station.

To make the improvements, the National Park Service is preparing an environmental assessment (EA) in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

According to the scoping document, radio, phone and computer-based communications in the park are limited, unreliable or unavailable in numerous areas due to issues such as slow internet and network speeds, limited bandwidth, lack of phone or data access, lack of or outdated equipment, and insufficient radio coverage.

“These issues reduce administrative and visitor service capabilities; increase costs; limit communications for law enforcement; can affect emergency response capabilities; and present an increased safety risk to personnel,” the scoping letter states. “The park has made numerous efforts to address these issues, resulting in some improvements. But a comprehensive, integrated plan is needed to improve the overall effectiveness of NPS communications and enable a flexible response to changing needs and technology.”

The plan also calls for installing fiber optic cable to the Fish Creek Ranger Station and other areas, and adding radio repeaters to existing communications sites at Chief Mountain Port of Entry, Goat Haunt Ranger Station, The Loop along Going-to-the-Sun Road, Elk Mountain, and possibly other backcountry areas. The plan would increase the height of existing radio towers at Chief Mountain Port of Entry and at park headquarters in West Glacier from 40 feet to 80 feet.

To expand connectivity for nongovernmental use, the park would establish the Two Medicine, Many Glacier, Rising Sun, and Lake McDonald Lodge developed areas as appropriate locations for commercial telecommunications infrastructure, including cellular, microwave, or other technologies; establish parameters for factors such as the amount, type, size, and placement of infrastructure; and identify approximate desired coverage areas.

In addition to safety, the plan caters to the shifting expectations of the visiting public.

“Communication needs for visitors and employees have evolved, with an increased need for a basic level of connectivity in developed areas,” the scoping letter states.

“The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the NPS to consider applications from commercial providers who propose installing telecommunications infrastructure on park lands,” the letter continues. “If the park receives such requests, the early establishment of parameters for the placement of infrastructure, coverage areas, and other factors would inform the evaluation of applications and, if permits are approved, ensure the protection of park resources.”

Issues and concerns identified in the scoping letter include operational safety, efficiency and cost; impacts to park resources, including historic districts and structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places; National Historic Landmarks; archeological and ethnographic resources; recommended wilderness; visual resources; and wildlife, including federally and state-listed species.

The park is accepting comments until March 9 as part of its public scoping, and will then prepare its plan and EA, which slated to be released in May. After a public review of the EA, park officials expect to release a decision document in July.

Please post scoping comments online at

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