A visitor to Glacier National Park looks at their phone while sitting on the deck of the historic Many Glacier Hotel. Credit: Justin Franz

One of the tell-tale signs you’ve crossed into Glacier National Park is that your phone turns into a mostly useless brick of electronics — unless of course you want to use it to take a photo of the stunning mountain vistas. But that could soon change after the National Park Service released a comprehensive telecommunications plan that calls for improved communications systems, including cell service, within the park’s boundaries.

As part of the plan, the park would allow commercial telecommunications infrastructure to be built in four developed areas of the park: the area around the Lake McDonald Lodge, the Many Glacier/Swiftcurrent area, Two Medicine and Rising Sun. The plan was released this month and the park service is accepting public comment on it through July 11. 

Park spokesperson Gina Kerzman said the plan to improve connectivity in the park is dual-purposed: to improve public safety and to meet changing visitor expectations. 

For one, the park service’s own communications infrastructure is out-of-date and needs to be upgraded for safety because there are some areas in Glacier where radios are useless. That is especially important as more people come to the park every year: Earlier this week, Glacier’s administration announced the park had seen a record-breaking 17.1% increase in visitation during the first five months of the year over 2019 (the park was closed for part of the spring in 2020 due to the pandemic). 

Specifically, the park service wants to replace three existing equipment poles with 40-foot telecommunications towers and extend the height of one 40-foot tower to 80 feet. It would also include the installation of new and improved radio repeaters.

Kerzman also said that the park wants its employees who are stationed within its boundaries to be able to access the internet when they are off-duty so that they can conduct personal business in an increasingly web-dependent world. He said connectivity will also be helpful for accommodations and other businesses in those developed areas. 

Kerzman also said that visitors now expect to be able to use their phone — even in a wild place like Glacier. 

“Some people don’t want to be able to connect to the outside world when they’re in a national park, but some people do,” she said. 

There will be limits to that connectivity, she said. Specifically, the park service wants to ensure that there is little-to-no service spill over outside those four developed areas and that no service reaches the backcountry. Presently, there is minimal cell service in the park besides the areas around Apgar in the west and St. Mary in the east, though visitors can sometimes get a few bars of service at higher elevations. 

One thing park officials are clear on is that they do not want massive cell towers built in the park — and certainly no cell towers being disguised as mock pine trees, like is sometimes done elsewhere.

“We want the most unobtrusive hardware possible,” Kerzman said. 

“The park service says it wants to meet visitor expectations, but if visitors suddenly want giraffes in the park are they going to go out and find some giraffes?”

Jeff Ruch, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

Not everyone supports the idea of cell service in parks. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national nonprofit that encourages public land managers to adhere to environmental ethics and scientific integrity, said that cell service will only further “Disney-fy” national parks to the detriment of the visitor experience. 

“The park service says it wants to meet visitor expectations, but if visitors suddenly want giraffes in the park are they going to go out and find some giraffes?” said Jeff Ruch, the group’s pacific director.

Ruch said that while Glacier appears to want to put some guardrails on the expansion of cellular service within its boundaries, he worries that it’s a slippery slope from expanding service in a few areas to dramatically degrading the landscape and park experience. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has found that the park service does not have an accurate count of just how many cell towers are on parks nationwide and that in some instances those towers don’t have proper permits.

Ruch also pointed to Yellowstone National Park, which has seen a dramatic increase in connectivity in recent years. According to the group, Yellowstone reversed a policy prohibiting wifi inside historic buildings and even cut down 100 trees to improve signal strength in 2019. Ruch said he believes expanding cell service in parks goes against the original mission of the National Park Service: to preserve wild places for the public’s enjoyment. 

“Once a park opens up like this it’s sort of like a bag of potato chips: It just can’t stop,” he said.

Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.