A new cell tower disguised as a pine tree will soon join the skyline at Sequoia National Park.
Earlier this month, officials at Sequoia National Park approved a proposal from Verizon Wireless to install a 138-foot-tall cell tower in the park. The two-year-long approval process included an environmental assessment and two public comment periods, according to The Points Guy.
The Fresno Bee reports that the structure will be the first of its kind inside Sequoia National Park, although adjacent Kings Canyon National Park and nearby Yosemite National Park (among others) have facilities of their own. The “monopine” tower, designed to blend in with the surrounding landscape, will stand on an existing utility site near the visitor development of Wuksachi Village, which is about 23 miles from the park’s main entrance.
Environmental issues played a role in the debate around the proposition, but during the comment periods, public opinion ultimately split on the question of visitor experience.
Nancy Hendricks, chief of planning and compliance at Sequoia National Park, told The Points Guy that those opposed to the project were concerned that increased cell coverage would disrupt the sanctity of the park: “A lot of visitors come to get away from tech. They don’t like the sights and sounds of people on their phones.” (And wasn’t it John Muir who said “Keep close to Nature’s heart . . . and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods”?)
Those in favor, on the other hand, lauded the benefits to safety and education that improved communication would provide. On its website, authorized parks concessioner Delaware North cautions guests that current cellular service at Sequoia is spotty. And Hendricks said, “If visitors are up in the park and have an accident, it can be hard to get ahold of a ranger.”
With better cellular coverage, the park would also be able to more effectively communicate updates on activities, traffic, hazardous conditions, and weather advisories, as well as provide educational programs and interpretive materials to the public.
The National Park Service remains committed to keeping wild places wild. Service from the tower will only reach the front country—extending, at most, 6 miles from the facility—and cover a portion of Generals Highway, Wuksachi Village, Lodgepole, Wolverton. (Emergency responses occur regularly in these popular, central areas.) Everywhere else will remain, for the time being, off the grid.
Planned educational guidelines and signs will also hopefully mitigate human disruption as a result of the increased service. No word yet on whether others in the largely decentralized parks system will follow suit as more cell towers pop up within park borders. (Grand Teton National Park is currently considering adding more towers to its existing two.)
With or without coverage, cell phones have lately caused a fair amount of harm in national parks including two separate selfie-related fatalities of a couple and a teenager at Yellowstone National Park. Geotagged photos are drawing unexpected attention to hard-to-get-to places, such as Horseshoe Bend in Arizona’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, resulting in heavy traffic that taxes the surrounding landscape. And the Instagram-related destruction to the poppy bloom at Lake Elsinore in California has many worried about similar flora damage during blooms in other natural places and protected parks.
However, a 2016 Outside op-ed points out that the outdoors are for everyone, and that with the omnipresence of cell phones and social media, a thoughtful expansion of cell service within the parks will open them up to new visitors who will hopefully fall in love with nature and come to champion the parks’ value.
Officials expect construction on the Wuksachi cell tower to begin in the fall of 2019 or 2020 (falling outside the summer nesting season for migratory birds, autumn and spring are the least environmentally disruptive times of year to undertake such a project) and be completed in six to 10 weeks.