Posted by: Sandy Steinman | August 4, 2019

Cell Tower Chaos in National Parks

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility News Release (PEER)

Audit Finds Broad Noncompliance with Eco-Rules and Revenue Collection

The National Park Service does not even know how many cell towers it has, improperly issues approvals for building towers, and fails to collect money owed by telecoms, according to a new audit prompted by a complaint from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  While the NPS promises to fix these problems, PEER charges that these lapses are multiplying rather than abating.

The Interior Department Office of Inspector General (IG) audit entitled “The NPS Needs To Improve Management of its Commercial Right-of-Way Program” was conducted following an October 2017 PEER complaint concerning illegal cell tower approvals in Yosemite National Park. The audit confirmed those problems and determined they were systemwide, including –

  • Widespread noncompliance with NPS rules requiring reviews of potential adverse impacts on environmental and cultural resources;
  • Failure to even bill for, let alone collect, revenue owed to NPS by telecoms; and
  • Lack of oversight to the extent that parks cannot accurately report what they have permitted and nationally the NPS does not inventory what cell facilities have been built.

“The root problem is a Park Service embrace of cellular coverage without any critical analysis, outsourcing its resource protection role to the telecom industry,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, pointing out that these private companies are permitted to use park land and resources to benefit their commercial subscribers. “In short, the IG found that the Park Service is illegally subsidizing the telecom industry to the detriment of the parks.”

One common failing the IG confirmed was parks approving cell tower construction with the type of permit issued for special events, like a wedding or film shoot. Instead, they are supposed to issue a right-of-way permit with annual fees based upon market value. Without even determining market value, the amount of revenue the deficit-ridden park system forfeits cannot be calculated.

In addition, parks allow the company that built the tower to collect rental from competing telecoms collocating their equipment on the tower without forwarding a dime to the park.

“The problems that PEER found at Yosemite are being repeated today at other parks, such as Grand Teton and Yellowstone,” added Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that NPS agreed to implement all the IG reform recommendations but without any indication of remedial action. “Until the Park Service shows that it will hold its managers to account for violating the law and agency rules, we can expect these violations to continue.”

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