When the National Park Service was created nearly a century ago, its mission seemed straightforward: to preserve the landscape for the enjoyment of today's and tomorrow's generations. As the agency nears its centennial, is there a need to recommit to that mission?
Those who believe so might point to ever-increasing fees across the National Park System, efforts to create deeper channels for boats at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and ongoing snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park.
But there also are groups that believe the Park Service should indeed re-examine its mission statement and focus a bit more on recreation in the parks and working with businesses that reflect an element of the human landscape in the parks, such as the oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore.
If you follow the writings and musings of Michael Frome, the man whom the late Gaylord Nelson said had no literary peer when it came to arguing for "a national ethic of environmental stewardship," you'll sense his belief that the Park Service needs to focus more on the environmental landscape of the park system.
That message was inherent in Mr. Frome's recent thoughts on the approval of a cellphone tower near Lake in Yellowstone.
Cellphone service originating from inside the boundaries of Yellowstone has been limited to the Mammoth, Old Faithful, Canyon, Tower-Roosevelt, and Grant developed areas. The Lake developed area is the one additional location in the park where park managers determined cellphone coverage could be added under the park’s 2008 Wireless Communications Services Plan Environmental Assessment and its associated Finding of No Significant Impact.
In July the park received permission to erect a tower near Lake. The new cellular site is to be located next to a buried water tank on a 100-foot rise above the Lake Administrative Area and 700 feet below the top of the Elephant Back Ridge. This site already has access via an existing service road and is near existing electric and phone lines. Antennas will be configured to minimize spillover coverage into Yellowstone’s backcountry.
In the September edition of his Portogram, Mr. Frome laments that decision.
"Changes made in response to comments were incorporated into a Finding of No Significant Impact. No significant impact — so the park administrators said. As they see it, the developed areas, with electric wires, phone lines, lots of automobiles, gas stations, hotels, commercial gift shops and sewage treatment, are 'sacrifice areas,' otherwise known as popcorn playgrounds or tourist ghettos," he writes.
"Before coming, you think of Yellowstone the way it is in the nature series on television. The Park Service tells you to unplug your ears and connect with nature — but when you arrive you can check your e-mail, the state of your stocks, and feel the conveniences of home," continues Mr. Frome. "Perhaps park administrators might have chosen not to allow those towers in the first place. They might have determined this was a strictly commercial service using public resources and public land, and that the signals the towers emit can spill into and pollute hiking trails away from developed areas.
"They might have decided that since hotels in the park get along without television, they can make it without wireless Internet service. When people come to Yellowstone, it’s one of the special times in their lives. They want to hear the splash of geysers and feel themselves in harmony with natural forces that over the centuries created the thermal features, peaks and canyons. That is what they come here for, and not having that sound drowned out by somebody conversing via cell phone."
As Mr. Frome goes on to argue against the cell tower, he says national parks "are presumed preserved to reflect the original America. Many National Park Service personnel want it that way. They care deeply, feeling their mission is to encourage us to embrace a lifestyle that treads lightly on the earth, and that doing so adds richness to all of our lives. They ought to be able to defend their park areas from overuse and misuse with a clear conscience. To deplete or degrade the visible physical resource does something to the invisible spirit of place as well."
To further drive home that point, Mr. Frome points to Zane Grey's 1925 book, The Vanishing American, in which "Nophaie most loved to be alone, out in the desert, 'listening to the real sounds of the open and to the whispering of his soul.”
"In short," Mr. Frome concludes in his column, "instead of treating a national park like any other place, the park professionals ought to say, 'If you can’t do without your cellphone or laptop or tablet, don’t come here!'”