Old Faithful Tourism

Tourists gather to watch Old Faithful erupt on Aug. 23, 2016, in Yellowstone National Park.

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Yellowstone National Park is considering upgrades to improve cell reception in certain parts of the park, but some are concerned about what the upgrades will actually look like.

Park officials are proposing upgrades to improve cellphone reception at the developed areas within the park, including antenna upgrades at the fire lookout on Mount Washburn, new towers at Canyon and Lake, and a new microwave antenna on an existing tower at Grant Village.

Bret De Young, the branch chief of telecommunications for Yellowstone, said the improvements won’t be so drastic as to allow things like movie streaming in the backcountry, but that they would increase the capability for people to use their phones at certain developed areas, like Old Faithful.

“It’s not increasing the footprint. It’s increasing the capacity,” De Young said.

Yellowstone is working with Verizon Wireless on the project. A public comment period was originally supposed to close earlier this month, but the comment period was extended until March 22.

Some are calling for deeper scrutiny for the project and what it will mean for the experience of visiting Yellowstone.

“This is something where we would like to see more analysis done,” said Stephanie Adams, the Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. She added that NPCA is concerned “that the proposed project could impact the unique natural and visual resources that attract millions of visitors to Yellowstone.”

The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has also raised concerns about the project. In a press release sent out earlier this month, the group’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, said the park is “going bandwidth bananas, as if one of the park’s principal purposes is to facilitate smartphones.”

De Young said the infrastructure in Yellowstone now is “antiquated,” and that it was originally built to bring landline telephones into hotel rooms. Now, the system faces demands from mobile phones and a lot of people, and he said they need to improve it to meet that demand. He also said it may help park employees do things like online banking during peak visitation times.

“It’s a lot busier than it used to be,” he said.

He also said the improvements won’t have much impact on the park’s scenery.

A park press release from January said the new towers at Canyon and Lake will be well hidden. At Mount Washburn, the park wants to build a new antenna structure on the fire lookout, which already has several antennas attached to it. They also want to build underground vaults for some new antennas, replace an offsite diesel generator with a propane one and move buried electrical service. At Grant Village, they plan to attach the new antenna to an existing structure.

Once the public comment period closes, officials will review the feedback and decide the level of analysis the project requires. De Young said this seems like a minor change, and that it will “more than likely” fall under the lowest level of scrutiny under federal environmental law.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.

Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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