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Grand Teton National Park pursuing disputed cell-tower build

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — People who have long been critical of a plan to put more cell towers in Grand Teton National Park are getting the opportunity to officially weigh in on the project.

Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming seeks thoughts from the public on plans for a new network of cell towers amid questions about how the National Park Service balances public safety with the experience of wilderness.

The park currently has two cell towers as part of a system built piecemeal-fashion, with some fiber-optic lines buried without conduit and poorly mapped. The lines are vulnerable to damage, according to a Park Service analysis and proposal for nine additional towers and related equipment.

“The current equipment and services that we’ve got are outdated, they’re inadequate and they don’t serve us well, nor do they serve park visitors or our partners well,” Grand Teton spokeswoman Denise Germann said Wednesday.

Outages lasting several days have been known, Germann said.

The new towers would be built in already developed areas not far from the park’s main roads. Benefits would include boosting the range where people could call for help, directing visitors to park services and helping retain seasonal workers by keeping them in touch with friends and family, according to the Park Service.

Grand Teton plans two public meetings and will take comments from the public on its proposal by April 10. With approval, construction of the new system could begin as soon as this fall, according to Germann.

One group questions whether the Park Service gives sufficient consideration to the implications of cell service in the backcountry.

“Part of the point of wilderness is the ability to be disconnected and feel alone, but if somebody on the same trail can order a pizza, or sell stock, or chase Pokemon, that takes away from the visitor experience,” said Jeff Ruch with the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

This isn’t the first time PEER has questioned cell towers in Grand Teton. In 2018, the group obtained Park Service documents outlining the proposal and raised concern the park might put up the towers with little public involvement.

The Park Service lacks a comprehensive policy for cell facilities, Ruch said.

“Do they want to wire the wilderness?” Ruch said. “They say, ‘No, no, we don’t intend to do that, but we’re not taking any steps to prevent it.’”

Cell coverage still wouldn’t reach much of the park, Germann said.

Unlike some other national parks, Grand Teton does not have any designated wilderness, where machinery such as cars, trucks and even chain saws are prohibited by law. However, Grand Teton has over 190 square miles (500 square kilometers) of recommended wilderness that includes the main summits of the Teton Range in the western half of the park.

Cell phones are already common in those areas and signs encouraging people to practice courtesy would help address any unintentional increase in cell-phone use, according to the Park Service proposal.

Park officials could require companies installing cell towers to direct coverage from backcountry areas, Ruch suggested.

The Park Service encourages people with ideas to improve the cell tower proposal to submit comments, said Germann.

Environmental group questions dozers use to fight wildfires

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — An environmentalist group is questioning the use of bulldozers to fight major wildfires, saying they’re ineffective and leave lasting environmental damage.

The Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, & Ecology organization released a report Thursday detailing bulldozer use during a Northern California wildfire in July. That fire killed eight people and destroyed 1,000 homes in and around Redding. One dozer driver died and another was seriously hurt.

Bulldozers are called in to help contain wildfires by clearing trees and vegetation in the blaze’s path.

The report found that the 305 miles of terrain the bulldozers cut through did little to slow the fire because flying embers jumped the lines.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott Mclean didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment.

Dems criticize monument cuts

Congressional Democrats and tribal leaders renewed criticism Wednesday of President Donald Trump for scaling back two national monuments in Utah following a wider review of lands protected around the country by past presidents.

The 2017 national monument review had a predetermined outcome and didn’t take into account tribal interests despite some of the lands being sacred to them, lawmakers and tribal leaders said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing in Washington.

The hearing brought the contentious review carried out by ex-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke back into the spotlight and rehashed many of the arguments that surrounded that assessment. The review led Trump to downsize two Utah monuments that protected wide expanses of lands home to tribal artifacts, dinosaur fossils and wildlife habitat.

Republicans on the committee and a few local representatives from Utah defended the review of 27 national monuments created since 1996 as a necessary re-evaluation of misuse by past presidents of a law that is supposed to be used to create small monuments around areas with particular historical or archaeological value. They said Trump’s decision to follow Zinke’s suggestion to downsize in December 2017 the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments was necessary to correct abuses by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, the committee chairman, called the monument reductions “the largest public lands rollback in modern American history” and said questions persist about whether the process was illegal and improperly influenced. The Interior Department’s office of inspector general report cleared Zinke of wrongdoing following a complaint that he redrew the boundaries of a national monument in Utah to benefit a state lawmaker and political ally.

Zinke was asked to appear but declined, Grijalva said. He also said there had been multiple requests sent to Interior on how the decision was made, but many of those inquiries have gone unanswered.

Several tribal leaders testified that the downsizing of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah by about 85 percent peeled back protections, exposing lands that are sacred to several Native American tribes.

“In Hopi, we never just leave an area. . . . Yes, maybe there is nobody there today, but we know spiritually they are still there,” said Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe. “It would hurt all the nations that have ties to Bears Ears if oil, mining and other activities were to occur there. How would you feel if I took an ATV and rode around in your church area?”

A coalition of tribal, conservation, outdoor recreation and paleontology groups have sued to block the downsizing of the monument. Those lawsuits are pending.

Zinke and Trump have openly advocated for a return to American energy dominance. But so far, no mining has occurred on lands stripped from the Utah monuments despite exploratory interest from companies, according to state and federal officials who approve permits.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, scoffed at the notion that monument cuts were about opening the lands for oil, gas and other mineral extraction. He urged the Democrats to support his proposal that would create new rules to limit the unilateral power afforded presidents under the Antiquities Act that is used to create national monuments, and require approvals from local entities.

“The problem is there are no rules. There is no process in the law,” Bishop said. “It is a worthy topic to discuss, even if the Democrats have put blinders on to try to narrow the focus.”

Bishop and others who defended the review and pointed to a sweeping public lands bill signed into law on Tuesday by Trump that creates five new monuments — two of which Zinke suggested — as the right way to establish monuments rather than unilateral decisions made by presidents.

“That’s the way monuments should be made,” Bishop said.

In the 15 months since Trump downsized the Utah monuments, the president has done nothing with Zinke’s proposal to shrink two more monuments, in Oregon and Nevada, and change rules at six others, including allowing commercial fishing inside three marine monuments in waters off New England, Hawaii and American Samoa.

Zinke resigned in December amid multiple ethics investigations and has joined a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. Trump has nominated as his replacement Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and other corporate interests.

St. Luke's offers free depression seminar

TWIN FALLS — St. Luke's Magic Valley will offer a free community seminar, "Depression and Treatment Options," from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday in the hospital's Oak Rooms on the lower level. Lunch will be provided.

The seminar will be presented by Dr. Zach Morairty of St. Luke’s Behavioral Health Department and will focus on the following:

  • The signs and symptoms of depression
  • The latest in treatment options, including electroconvulsive therapy
  • When various treatment options are appropriate
  • The benefits and side effects of different treatments

Pre-registration is recommended. RSVP by calling 208-814-0095.