As the weather warms up, many of us are thinking about getting outdoors. For a lot of Utahns, that means enjoying one of our Mighty Five national parks.
But the 2News Investigative Team found that one park was operating in secret — at least when it came to adding a cell tower inside the park.
Smart phones have become the soundtrack of our lives, connecting us to family, friends and work. But when you go to any of Utah’s Mighty Five, you’re forced to disconnect, at least until now.
At Utah’s most visited national park, people are already scrolling, texting and calling, all thanks to a cell tower constructed inside a building near the visitor’s center at Zion National Park.
A 2News investigation found the park’s superintendent ignored the park service’s own rules.
2News Investigates combed through the RM-53, which is the internal guide for the National Park Service when it comes to installation of wireless telecommunication facilities. It plainly says under the “Guidance” section:
“The public will be given the opportunity to participate fully and comment on applications for Right-of-way permits to construct WTF (wireless telecommunication facilities) sites on park property.”
It goes on to say under the “Procedures” section, “Upon receipt of the required compliance documentation, the park will then take the following simultaneous actions: Initiate a 30 day public comment period by posting a notice in the newspapers as above and in the Federal Register.”
“On or before day 90 - 100, all public comments and analysis should have been received. The park will: Consider the public comments received," the guide states.
2News Investigates found that didn’t happen.
“If the public’s never notified, there’s no public input," said Jeff Ruch, the west coast director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. The group watches the National Park Service to make sure they’re playing the by rules.
- Wendy Halloran: “In your professional opinion, did they follow the rules?”
- Jeff Ruch: “No, they didn’t follow the park rules that require public notice, placement of the announcement in the Federal Registry.”
2News Investigates started looking into this story nearly two years ago, filing public records requests. But nearly two years later, we have still not received a single document related to our request. So we asked Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh why he’s keeping everyone from the media to the public in the dark.
- Wendy Halloran: “Was this done in the dark?”
- Jeff Bradybaugh: “It was not done in the dark.”
Bradybaugh says he followed the National Environmental Policy Act and worked with Verizon to minimize the impact on the public. He says because they deemed there was minimal impact, public comment was not required. He signed a Categorial Exclusion for the cell tower in 2017.
But we pressed him on the RM-53 requirements, which are specifically for wireless communication facilities.
- Halloran: “Did you put an announcement in the Federal Register regarding this cell tower?”
- Bradybaugh: “We did not.”
- Halloran: “What about an initial 30 day public comment period. Was that done?”
- Bradybaugh: “We did not do that.”
Bradybaugh says while he thinks he followed the rules and that, ultimately, public notification and comment wasn’t required, he did relent.
I really don’t feel it’s an issue. I will say that the public should have a voice in these things and if we dropped the ball on that, that’s my fault," he said.
“They did not notify the public the way the Park Service rules and laws that are implicated by this require — and frankly, that’s not unusual," Ruch said. "The Park Service often violates its own rules and statutes when it comes to these operations.”
Ruch says there’s nothing his group can do to try and enforce the National Park Service rules. All they can do is make the public aware of what’s being done in the dark.
It’s a rule that the Park Service has adopted, and you would think they would follow their own rules. And to the extent that they don’t, what’s the point of having the rule?” Ruch asked.
Zion is not the only national park in Utah to install a cell phone tower. Bryce Canyon National Park is also going through the process. It, however, has notified the public and taken public comment on the proposal.
The Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, did an audit of cell phone towers in national parks in 2019. The audit found several issues, including the fact that the National Park Service had cell phone towers that did not have permits, or were operating with permits that were expired. It also found the National Park Service was not collecting fees from the cell tower operates as they are supposed to.
Timeline for Zion cell tower:
- July 21, 2015: Verizon’s parent company, CommNet Cellular applied for a 10-year permit to operate at Zion National Park
- June 15, 2017: Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh signed a Categorical Exclusion which says, “Therefore, I am categorically excluding the described project from further NPEA analysis. No extraordinary circumstances apply.”
- October 3, 2019: A Right of Way permit was issued to Verizon for the cell tower.
To look at what projects are currently proposed in different parks, you can refer to the following:
- The National Park Service's Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) site
- Projects in Arches National Park
- Projects in Bryce Canyon National Park
- Projects in Canyonlands National Park
- Projects in Capital Reef National Park
- Projects in Zion National Park
PEER has been watching the National Park Service for years. Their website specifically related to cell towers can be found here.