Glacier proposes telecommunications upgrades

Comments due by July 11

By: - June 14, 2021 6:42 pm

Glacier National Park announced Friday that Going-to-the-Sun Road is open all the way over the pass. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Better internet and cell phone service may be coming to the busiest areas of Glacier National Park in the future, but the backcountry still should stay quiet, as the park proposed in a telecommunications plan out for public comment until July 11. 

Glacier announced Friday its Comprehensive Telecommunications Plan and Environmental Assessment was out for review for 30 days. Members of the public can post comments on the NPS (National Park Service) PEPC website or send them by mail to the superintendent (see related box).

Glacier broke some visitation records last year, and it’s expected to be busy in 2021. Technology upgrades are under consideration. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

“The plan is primarily intended to address deficiencies in NPS radio, phone, computer and data-based telecommunications systems that support park operations,” said Glacier National Park in a news release announcing the comment period.

Mainly, the plan means upgrades for technology already operating in the park. However, the plan also notes that cell service has only been available in Apgar and St. Mary “as a result of signal spillover” from outside the park, and it’s important for the park to identify places where cell service could be established in the future while protecting resources.

While recognizing that national parks provide disconnected space for many visitors, the plan also proposes a strategy for commercial cellular and/or internet access for public and NPS use in certain developed areas,” said the news release. “Under the plan, commercial cellular and/or internet infrastructure and coverage would only be considered in developed areas at Many Glacier, Rising Sun, Two Medicine, and Lake McDonald Lodge. Coverage would be restricted to these developed areas only.”

Public Comment

Mail comments to Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn: Telecommunications Plan-EA, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, Montana, 59936. 

Libby Metcalf, a faculty member at the University of Montana W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, said the lines the park is drawing between the busiest areas and those less traveled make sense in the modern age, especially given the high levels of tourism across national parks.

“We’re all predicting, and early numbers suggest, that we’re going to have another record visitation year across our parks and forests,” said Metcalf, Joel Meier Distinguished Professor of Wild Land Management at UM. “And so it becomes important to understand technology.”

More people mean more emergencies on frequently used trails, for instance, and technology helps with communication, she said.

Additionally, in the past, many visitors knew they wouldn’t have good connectivity in a park. But Metcalf said people’s expectations have changed for places such as Apgar and Many Glacier, which function like small villages.

“They expect a certain level of services,” Metcalf said.

For example, the park’s plan notes retail transactions can be slow because of connection problems. Technology upgrades would help in those high-use areas, but Metcalf said she appreciates the distinction in the park’s plan.

“You’re not trying to increase your connectivity in the backcountry,” she said.

Lucy Beighle, with Glacier Country Montana, said it’s rare for people to complain about the lack of connectivity within the park, and many people come to Glacier to unplug. At the same time, she said the tourism bureau for the area supports better technology.

“We are all for it for safety purposes,” Beighle said.

Glacier park is helping people who don’t have tickets in a “ticket corral.” Glacier Country Montana said better connectivity would give tourists a leg up if they figure out they need a ticket but are already outside service. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Glacier is piloting a ticketed entry system for Going-to-the-Sun Road this year. Beighle also said if people have better internet access, they might be able to hop online and reserve a ticket, or check availability, if they figure out they need one near the park entrance instead of having to turn around and drive to service. She said the park is doing a great job catching people early and well outside the park, but any advancement in technology will be a help.

“Any sort of upgrades in that regard could help ease the flow of traffic,” Beighle said.

The proposed plan from Glacier includes the following:

  • Replacing three existing equipment poles with 40-foot towers and extending the height of one 40-foot tower at Chief Mountain Port of Entry to 80 feet (not a commercial tower),
  • Installing a radio repeater at the Loop on Going-to-the-Sun Road, and
  • Upgrading the temporary radio repeater in recommended wilderness until it can be moved to a location outside the park and installing temporary radio repeaters for use during short-term non-emergency events.

If needed, the plan includes potential options to install up to four additional permanent radio repeaters in recommended wilderness if other actions do not sufficiently improve NPS radio communications,” the news release said.

The plan also notes installing antennas, microwave dishes, and phone system upgrades. However, Glacier said only infrastructure that allows “minimal” impacts to visibility and other resources will be allowed, and “highly visible” infrastructure such as large towers will not be permitted.

“The plan would not permit commercial telecommunications infrastructure in recommended wilderness or in the park’s Backcountry Zone as defined in Glacier’s 1999 General Management Plan,” said the news release. “The plan would require that signal spillover outside approved areas be minimized as much as technologically feasible, including in recommended wilderness and along park roadways.”

The environmental assessment evaluates impacts to visual resources; historic districts; recommended wilderness; natural soundscapes; grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and wolverine; and visitor use and experience, the park said in the news release.  

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”