A federal government watchdog group is suing Grand Teton National Park for failing to release records suspected of revealing illegal predecisional deal-making with cellphone companies.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, is alleging a violation of the Freedom of Information Act relating to a June request for a trove of documents and correspondence with wireless companies. Executive Director Jeff Ruch said he begrudgingly tolerated the delayed fulfillment of the records request for eight months, but then he learned through a separate Yellowstone National Park records request that Grand Teton had contracted with a real estate analyst to appraise 11 cell towers and 55 miles of fiber-optic cable.
“Generally individual parks are cooperative, and if they give us any kind of information and they’re willing to produce records within a time frame then we don’t sue them,” Ruch said.
“But in this instance we couldn’t get a straight answer from them, and it looked like they were rapidly moving forward based upon this real estate appraisal document,” he said. “And so we thought now would be the time to knock a little more forcefully on their front door.”
The watchdog group’s attorney, Adam Carlesco, filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The complaint asks a judge to declare an injunction that would force Teton park to produce the requested records.
The Jackson Hole Daily’s request to Grand Teton for an interview Thursday was denied. Park officials, who learned of the lawsuit the same day, issued a statement.
“The National Park Service is developing a telecommunications infrastructure plan and environmental assessment for Grand Teton National Park and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway,” the statement said. “Public scoping was conducted in June and July 2017.”
It was this scoping process, which precedes National Environmental Policy Act review, that prompted PEER’s Freedom of Information Act request. Ruch dubbed a four-page scoping newsletter the park released last summer as “very vague,” but it did include mention of applications from wireless companies to build cell towers, which caught his eye.
“Grand Teton says they’ve been getting rights-of-way applications since 2013,” Ruch said. “So for five years, they’ve been keeping this in the dark. This is an area where parks are often erratic and noncompliant.”
A policy included in the Park Service’s reference manual states that parks must alert the public of receipt of cell tower applications within 10 days, he said. The public wasn’t notified of Grand Teton’s applications until 2017, meaning there had been a four-year lag.
Ruch said that it’s tough to say if Teton park broke the law, outside of the Freedom of Information Act, without seeing the results of his request.
Grand Teton, he said, “is on the ground floor of going the wrong way” in terms of complying with Park Service cellular infrastructure policy. Other parks that have worked to boost their coverage, like Yellowstone and Yosemite, have been targets of PEER for years.
There are two cellphone towers within Teton park boundaries, one at Jackson Hole Airport and one at Signal Mountain. The contract Grand Teton entered into with the real estate analyst will appraise 11 towers, each 80 feet high and most mimicking pine trees or flag poles. Each tower will accommodate up to four carriers. They would be located at Moose, Beaver Creek, South Jenny Lake, North Jenny Lake, Signal Mountain, Jackson Lake Lodge, Colter Bay, the AMK Ranch, Lizard Creek Campground and Flagg Ranch.
“That would be the single biggest increment of cell towers in the whole National Park Service system,” Ruch said. “More than Yellowstone. Under this plan, presumably you would be able to hunt Pokemon in every corner and crevice of Grand Teton. And this is all going to be 4G — big bandwidth, music and movies.”
Ruch said his group is not a bunch of anti-technology Luddites. Instead, he and his colleagues work to ensure that backcountry experiences and the ability to be disconnected in nature-oriented parks are preserved. The group’s goal is not to block Grand Teton from adding any cellular infrastructure, he said, but to make sure it’s abiding by Park Service policies and planning honestly out in front of the public.
“I don’t know that they’ve made the decision — without reviewing it with anyone — that they basically want to wire the entire park,” Ruch said. “Why did they make that decision, if they did?”