By Pat Jenkins
For anyone with an opinion on whether Mount Rainier should be blanketed with cell phone service, now is the time to speak up.
Park officials have begun another public comment period on a proposal by three cell phone companies to improve and expand service for their customers within the park. The 45-day comment period, which ends July 19, is the last one before a final decision on the proposal.
The National Park Service announced June 5 that it released its Environmental Assessment – a formal study of the cell phone proposals –for the public to review. The study details plans of Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T to install limited-range wireless communications equipment inside the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. The Park Service must, under federal law established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, consider all commercial applications for the installation of wireless facilities on Park Service land.
The Park Service is considering two options for the cell phone proposal: Allow the visitor center to be a hub for cell phone signals, or reject the plan entirely. The latter, which park officials call the no-action alternative, would leave Paradise without cell service.
The Park Service has already decided there won't be any cell phone towers in the park, although one was suggested by the companies in an original proposal. Instead, telecommunications equipment would be installed in the attic of the visitor center, and antennas would be mounted inside the east and west ends of the building and would be masked by fiberglass panels that would match the structure's interior walls, according to the companies.
The Environmental Assessment (EA) evaluates potential issues and impacts of the proposal for the park and visitors, and how to manage any impacts.
The public can read the EA and have a say about it online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/paradisecellular or through postal mail to Superintendent, Mount Rainier National Park, 55210 238th Ave. E., Ashford, WA 98304.
Last year, during a comment period on the initial application of the cell phone providers, opinions were evenly divided, according to park officials. On one side among the 492 comments were 249 people people who want more cell phone connectivity at the mountain, partly for the ability to call for help in the remote back-country or other safety considerations, such as receiving the park's wireless notifications of storms or dangerous conditions such as avalanche risk. On the other side were 241 people who, when they're enjoying the mountain wilderness, want a break from cell phones – their own and others'.
The latter sentiment is shared by at least one organized group. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has formally told park officials that cell equipment and increased cell phone use inside the park would clash with peaceful, tranquil wilderness settings. The companies' application should be denied, PEER said.
In the Environmental Assessment, park officials note that feelings about cell phone use on the mountain vary depending on individuals' perspectives. As for safety-related issues, officials said the availability of cell service could speed up responses to emergencies such as injured or lost visitors.
Paradise is the park's most popular and heavily visited recreation area. It's open to visitors year-round. Cell phone reception there is spotty.
Verizon's closest cell towers or antennas are in the Ashford-Elbe area and the Crystal Mountain ski area. T-Mobile is in the process of placing a tower near Ashford and already has a tower at Crystal Mountain, where AT&T has one, too.
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