Glacier Park

On the Grid in Glacier

Park approves plan to expand telecommunications systems, allowing commercial, cellular and internet coverage

By Tristan Scott
A bicyclist passes through the West Side Tunnel past Heaven’s Peak on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park on June 19, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When John Muir cautioned that “only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness,” he couldn’t have predicted a future generation reprogrammed to rely on push notifications.

He certainly hadn’t imagined the complex demands of digital communication in the 21st century. And while “unplugging” and going “off grid” remain fairly elusive states of existence even in this remote corner of the country, they will soon become even more unusual following the recent approval of Glacier National Park’s Comprehensive Telecommunications Plan, which allows an expanded network of cellular and internet coverage in some corners of Glacier National Park.

In February 2020, Glacier Park officials unveiled the plan to improve cell service by adding infrastructure, including new towers, radio antennae and microwave dishes, and solicited feedback from the public. The recently approved plan is crafted to “address deficiencies in National Park Service (NPS) radio, phone, computer and data-based telecommunications systems that support park operations,” as well as enable a “strategy for commercial cellular and/or internet access for public and NPS use in certain developed areas.”

According to the plan, which was approved following a Dec. 13, 2021 Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) response to the environmental assessment released last June, applications for commercial telecommunications infrastructure and coverage will only be considered at the Many Glacier, Rising Sun, Two Medicine, and Lake McDonald Lodge developed areas. 

“Coverage shall be restricted to these developed areas only,” the plan states. “Commercial infrastructure and coverage will not be permitted until a site-specific review is complete and any application is approved in accordance with the NPS right-of-way permitting process.”

Historically, opponents to an expansion of telecommunications within the park 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 spiking visitation begets the expectation of services where they once weren’t, like on the shores of Lake McDonald or in backcountry lodges.

The public was more receptive to NPS proposals that improve telecommunications for purposes related to law enforcement and public safety, as well as administrative connectivity and some visitor services, including proposals for expansion in recommended wilderness areas. Some commenters opposed the expansion of commercial services in recommended wilderness areas for commercial services, however.

“The plan will not permit commercial telecommunications infrastructure in recommended wilderness or in the park’s Backcountry Zone as defined in Glacier’s 1999 General Management Plan,” the plan sates. “The plan requires that signal spillover outside approved areas be minimized as much as technologically feasible, including in recommended wilderness and along park roadways.”

Improvements to NPS systems will include phone upgrades, improved internet speed and access, improved electronic file and information sharing, remote access to digital video security systems, more reliable reporting for utility alarms, improved radio communications in areas where radio coverage is insufficient, and backup radio communications. Project areas include existing NPS telecommunications sites and/or developed areas at: Many Glacier, Two Medicine, East Glacier and St. Mary, as well as the Polebridge, Walton, and Goat Haunt Ranger Stations, the Chief Mountain Port of Entry, the Logan Pass Visitor Center, the Loop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR), and Apgar Mountain. The plan also includes possible radio repeater sites in the park’s recommended wilderness, including on Elk Mountain and Looking Glass Hill. 

Some of the changes to infrastructure and equipment as a result of NPS telecommunications improvements include: 

• Installing or replacing telecommunications infrastructure and equipment, such as radio antennas and microwave dishes; 

• Replacing three equipment poles (similar in size and appearance to a telephone pole) with 40-foot lattice-frame towers and extending the height of one 40-foot tower to 80 feet (approximately 6 feet wide at the base);

• Installing a radio repeater at the Loop on the GTSR, including an estimated 30-foot mast, antenna, and solar panels on the roof of the existing comfort station; 

• Installing temporary radio repeaters for use during short-term non-emergency projects or situations; 

• Possibly installing permanent radio repeaters (consisting of an approximately 5x4x5-foot equipment shelter, 20-foot mast, and solar panels) on Elk Mountain and other sites in recommended wilderness if NPS radio communications are not sufficiently improved by other actions. Other areas in recommended wilderness preliminarily identified for possible permanent repeaters include the Belly River, Nyack, or Two Medicine areas, or on Mount Brown; 

• Upgrading an existing temporary repeater at Looking Glass Hill, also in recommended wilderness, until the repeater can be moved to a location outside the park. Recent developments indicate the Looking Glass Hill repeater may be moved outside the park without first requiring the upgrade. 

For more detailed information on the plan, the documents are available on the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) website.

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