Glacier National Park’s telecommunications plan approved

Park: ‘This plan will not allow cell coverage in the backcountry. Full stop.’

By: - January 10, 2022 6:38 pm

Glacier National Park’s telecommunications plan is approved. (Keila Szpaller for the Daily Montanan.)

If you’re wondering about road closures while visiting Glacier National Parking, chances are, you’ll check your cellphone for information.

Currently, service is spotty at best, or nonexistent, and in many places, that’s part of the point.

But a newly approved telecommunications plan for Glacier National Park means four developed areas of the park could be in line for cell and internet service by spring 2023 at the earliest — with many details to be sorted out.

“The most important thing for people to know is this doesn’t mean there’s going to be all these cell towers going up all over Glacier National Park,” said Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer for Glacier. “That’s absolutely not what is going to happen.”

Glacier’s Amy Secrest, with environmental planning and compliance said: “This plan will not allow cell coverage in the backcountry. Full stop. That’s not what we want to do.”

Rather, it means the stage is set for Glacier to consider cell options in Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Rising Sun and Lake McDonald.

From the plan:

“Glacier uses the internet to provide the best possible and latest information to visitors, and visitors need to be able to access that information for trip planning and to stay updated on current conditions such as unanticipated road, trail, and campground closures,” said Glacier in the plan.

“Connectivity is also important to off-duty employees and their families to meet daily needs that are increasingly dependent on internet access, such as paying bills and accessing bank accounts.”

Kerzman said the plan in no way guarantees any particular action, but it does put sideboards around the conversations ahead.

“We may decide to never have additional service at Two Medicine,” Kerzman said, as an example. “But this sets the parameters if we wanted to move forward.”

Last week, Glacier announced the National Park Service approved its Comprehensive Telecommunications Plan, and the park noted the regional director signed last month a Finding of No Significant Impact for the environmental assessment.

Monday, Kerzman and Secrest talked about what that approval means for the public and employees — and what it doesn’t mean.

The bulk of the plan is aimed at updating technology so employees who run the park can complete tasks, sometimes even basic ones, Secrest said. The plan itself explains the need.

“The inability of Glacier’s existing telecommunications systems to support park operations is expected to become increasingly problematic as the park experiences ever-increasing visitation,” the plan said. “The park has made numerous efforts over the years to address the issues, resulting in some improvements. But a comprehensive suite of integrated actions is needed to improve the overall reliability and effectiveness of NPS communications in the park.”

The news release said project areas include existing NPS telecommunications sites and/or developed areas, such as the Loop and Going-to-the-Sun Road.

“Most of the plan is about upgrades to NPS telecommunications technology,” Secrest said. “And we need it for park operations.”

Glacier National Park’s telecommunications plan is approved. (Keila Szpaller for the Daily Montanan)

Improved radio communications will benefit public safety and staff safety, she said. Also, in some places, the internet is so slow, it’s hard for employees to share files or even take care of basic communications, and upgrades will help. 

The approval gives Glacier the green light to move ahead with 11 action items, including improving NPS data/internet access and phone systems at Many Glacier (see items No. 1-11 on page six and seven of the plan). It means the park can continue working toward approval for eight additional action items (see items No. 1-8 on page seven of the plan).

As for cell service, Secrest said the plan identifies the four areas as ones for which the park will consider applications from commercial providers. However, the plan does not offer any specific coverage proposals, so details, such as precisely where service might be available, would be ironed out in the future.

“But one thing that the plan does state very clearly is that commercial coverage will not be allowed outside of those developed areas,” Secrest said.

If a commercial provider wants to offer service, that provider will put in an application for a right-of-way permit, and if approved, it will set requirements.

The plan calls for minimizing visible impact to the park, and that includes vertical infrastructure such as towers, the officials said. It also calls for minimal “spillover” into undeveloped areas by providers.

“We’re asking them to limit spillage as much as possible,” Kerzman said.

Currently, a pilot commercial program offers wifi and internet service in the Many Glacier valley because Xanterra, which manages park concessions there, got approval for it from the National Park Service, Kerzman said. But at Rising Sun, for example, wifi is only available to guests in the lobby.

However the park proceeds, Secrest said the public has been concerned about the idea of having cell service across the park, and she said the plan limits consideration of any service to those four areas, Lake McDonald, Rising Sun, Two Medicine and Many Glacier. 

“Sometimes when you’re in the backcountry, you can pick up a random signal from somewhere outside the park, but this plan is not going to add any coverage to the backcountry,” Secrest said.

News release from Glacier National Park:

The National Park Service (NPS) has approved Glacier National Park’s Comprehensive Telecommunications Plan. On December 13, 2021, the Regional Director for NPS Interior Regions 6, 7, and 8 signed a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the environmental assessment (EA) prepared for the plan.  

Actions under the plan will address deficiencies in NPS radio, phone, computer and data-based telecommunications systems that support park operations. The plan will allow a flexible response to changing communication needs and advances in technology, including upgrading to new technologies and/or removing unnecessary NPS telecommunications infrastructure if needed. 

Improvements to NPS systems will include phone system upgrades, improved Internet speed and access, improved electronic file and information sharing, remote access to digital video security systems, more reliable reporting for utility alarms, improved radio communications in areas where radio coverage is insufficient, and backup radio communications. Project areas include existing NPS telecommunications sites and/or developed areas at Many Glacier, Two Medicine, East Glacier, St. Mary, the Polebridge, Walton, and Goat Haunt Ranger Stations, Chief Mountain Port of Entry, Logan Pass Visitor Center, the Loop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR), and Apgar Mountain. The plan also includes possible radio repeater sites in the park’s recommended wilderness, including Elk Mountain and Looking Glass Hill. 

Some of the changes to infrastructure and equipment as a result of NPS telecommunications improvements include: 

  • installing or replacing telecommunications infrastructure and equipment, such as radio antennas and microwave dishes; 
  • replacing three equipment poles (similar in size and appearance to a telephone pole) with 40-foot lattice frame towers and extending the height of one 40-foot tower to 80 feet (approximately 6 feet wide at the base); 
  • installing a radio repeater at the Loop on the GTSR, including an estimated 30-foot mast, antenna, and solar panels on the roof of the existing comfort station; 
  • installing temporary radio repeaters for use during short-term non-emergency projects or situations; 
  • possibly installing permanent radio repeaters (consisting of an approximately 5x4x5-foot equipment shelter, 20-foot mast, and solar panels) on Elk Mountain and other sites in recommended wilderness if NPS radio communications are not sufficiently improved by other actions. Other areas in recommended wilderness preliminarily identified for possible permanent repeaters include the Belly River, Nyack, or Two Medicine areas, or on Mt. Brown; 
  • upgrading an existing temporary repeater at Looking Glass Hill, also in recommended wilderness, until the repeater can be moved to a location outside the park. Recent developments indicate the Looking Glass Hill repeater may be moved outside the park without first requiring the upgrade. 

Additionally, the plan enables a strategy for commercial cellular and/or Internet access for public and NPS use in certain developed areas. Applications for commercial telecommunications infrastructure and coverage will only be considered at the Many Glacier, Rising Sun, Two Medicine, and Lake McDonald Lodge developed areas. Coverage shall be restricted to these developed areas only. Commercial infrastructure and coverage will not be permitted until a site-specific review is complete and any application is approved in accordance with the NPS right-of-way permitting process. Commercial communications providers interested in submitting a proposal should contact Glacier National Park representative Brian McKeon at [email protected]

The plan establishes conditions and parameters on the placement, size, amount, and type of commercial telecommunications infrastructure and equipment. Only commercial infrastructure with minimal visibility and impacts to park resources shall be permitted, such as micro cell sites or wireless access points. Highly visible infrastructure will not be permitted under the plan, including large-scale towers. The plan will not permit commercial telecommunications infrastructure in recommended wilderness or in the park’s Backcountry Zone as defined in Glacier’s 1999 General Management Plan. The plan requires that signal spillover outside approved areas be minimized as much as technologically feasible, including in recommended wilderness and along park roadways. 

In June of 2021, the NPS solicited formal public comments on the plan and EA. A summary of comments and NPS responses is attached to the FONSI.  

 For more detailed information on actions in the plan, the Comprehensive Telecommunications Plan EA and Finding of No Significant Impact are available on the NPS Planning, Environment & Public Comment (PEPC) website. 

Glacier telecomms plan

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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.”

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