Yosemite is not Forks of Salmon.
Cell-phone towers in national parks have started a debate between the National Park Service, under the US Department of Interior, and rural regions dominated by national forests, under the US Department of Agriculture. The debate is between two unrelated cultures: urban tourists visiting the national parks vs. the rural residents of mountain regions, mainly on the coast and north of Lake Tahoe, traditionally timber and cattle economies but post-construction bust, now marijuana and cattle economies. These regions used to be called "the country" (as opposed to "the city").
Rep. Jared Huffman, who represents the north coast from San Rafael to Crescent City, has excellent environmentalist credentials but also an excellent ear for the needs of his district, the northern parts of which consist largely of mountain ridges, narrow valleys, and winding roads (many of them still dirt).
Members of the Badlands Journal editorial board are familiar with both the distant reaches of Huffman's district and the polyglot cell-phone babble encountered on any trail at least on the Yosemite Valley floor, which sounds like a first-class car on the Orient Express.
But, encountering a lone hiker on a high Sierra trail on a beautiful summer morning, patches of snow still glistening around a dark blue lake, mirroring granite peaks behind it, and being forced to listen to someone barking into his cell phone interrupts one's communion with wilderness. Now, the wilderness is still there, and the cell-phone holder may sprain his ankle where there is no reception and an iPhone won't stop a Grizzly, catch a fish or light a fire. Meeting someone in the wilderness yakking away on a cell phone doesn't alter the wilderness. It can just mess with your mind if one reason you seek out wilderness is to get away from people and their personal communications systems.
On the other hand, the cell phone has been a real improvement for the people living and working in Huffman's district and parts of the state like it, the Sierra foothills for example. This doesn't mean that the hand held devices aren't as misused there as they are in urban and suburban America, but it is helpful for a rancher to be able to do business from the saddle with his cell phone or a contractor to call a worker in town with an emergency order from a hardware store.
But, the country is always more complicated than the city assumes, and it is all in how the cell phone is used. For example, law enforcement has been able to establish cartel control of certain marijuana patches based on cell-phone calls from detained workers to certain numbers in Michoacan.
Wire the wilderness? As cell service expands, national parks become the latest digital battlegrounds
When John Muir helped establish the National Park Service, he argued that such parks were vital to help people unplug from the world. “Break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods,” Muir was quoted as saying in 1915.
But these days at Yosemite National Park, hikers to Half Dome are likely to encounter people talking on cell phones as they climb to the top. Similar scenes are playing out at other national parks as the call of the outdoors increasingly comes with crisp 4G service. Not everyone is wild about that.
In Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rainier and other iconic parks, environmentalists are pressing the National Park Service to slow or halt construction of new cellular towers within park boundaries. They say the NPS is quietly facilitating a digital transformation with little public input or regard to its mission statement — to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System.”
Richard Louv, author of several books on connecting young people with the outdoors, said the parks are losing what once made them unique.
“Can you imagine hiking in Yosemite far from other people, and then suddenly it sounds like you are in McDonald’s, with everyone on their phones?” said Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” and other books. “That is not why most people go to our national parks.”
Yet advocates for increased cell service, including many NPS officials, say the parks can’t cling to an earlier era. Expanded cellular and broadband coverage, they argue, helps rescue teams respond to emergencies and are necessary to draw a new generation to the parks.
“Visitors want to be able to use their mobile devises to share experiences with their friends and family,” said Lena McDowall, an NPS deputy director, in testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in September. “They want to take advantage of the many internet-based resources we have developed.”
Locked in competition, Verizon, AT&T and other telecom companies are aggressively courting the most popular national parks, and under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, the parks are obligated to at least review proposals for new cellular towers. Yet because the National Park Service is highly decentralized, NPS headquarters does not currently have an inventory of cellular towers in parks nationwide. It leaves it up to individual park superintendents to decide on proposals for new cellular towers and other communications infrastructure.
Yosemite is one park that has come under scrutiny for its expansion of cell service. In October, using public records request, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that Yosemite superintendents, over the years, had quietly approved six cellular towers in the park.
PEER, which has asked the Interior Department’s Inspector General to investigate, said that Yosemite is “violation of both federal laws and agency policies” by approving the towers without public notice or environmental review. The group also unearthed National Park Service emails suggesting that Yosemite officials are uncertain about ownership of five of the towers and how revenues should be handled when telecom companies co-locate on the towers.
In an email to McClatchy, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said he was aware of PEER’s complaint, but could not immediately comment. Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for NPS headquarters in Washington, also declined to discuss the Yosemite case, other than to note that “decisions about cell towers and coverage are up to the (park) superintendents.”
Juggling public demands has always been difficult in the national parks, especially those that draw big crowds and include large expanses of designated wilderness. In 2016, the NPS reported a record 331 million visits to the parks, many of which suffer from overcrowding in the summer.
For the last year, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state has been weighing whether to allow three telecom companies to co-locate a cellular facility at the park’s Paradise visitor center.
Public opinion appears divided on the plan, which would extend cell service to some, but not all, of the mountain. Of those who commented on the proposal, 249 supportive were supportive and 241 were opposed.
In North Dakota, wilderness advocates strongly opposed Verizon’s plan to build a new cell tower at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, fearing it would blanket the backcountry with cell signals. NPS officials ultimately decided to design the new cell tower so it would not extend service into the park’s designated wilderness.
Heidi Flato, a spokeswoman with Verizon, said the company is aware that some wilderness advocates have concerns with expanded cell coverage. “We’ve always sought to work with the National Park Service to find the right balance,” said Flato, noting that a major complaints of park visitors is being unable to get a signal.
Over the last decade, PEER has emerged as the fiercest opponent of telecom expansion in Yosemite, Yellowstone and other national parks. The non-profit group is led by lawyer Jeff Ruch, who keeps a close eye on the special use permits the national parks issues for new services and concessions.
Under National Park Service guidelines, such “special uses” are encouraged if they enhance park resources or improve public safety. But such uses should be rejected, the NPS says, if they “unreasonably disrupt the atmosphere of peace and tranquility of wilderness.”
Ruch argues the park service rarely grapples with these tradeoffs when it is approached by cellular providers. “A telecom company will come to a park and say, “Nice mountain. We want to put a cell tower on it.’ And the park usually says yes.”
U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat who represents the north coast of California, said he doesn’t support physical construction of cell towers in wilderness areas. But he sees no problem with telecom companies improving signal strength near visitor centers, park entrances and even into the back country.
Huffman has introduced legislation, The Public Lands Telecommunications Act, that would allow parks and federal land agencies to keep the rental income they receive from granting right-of-way to cellular towers. They then could use that money to partner with nearby rural communities on improving their cellular and broadband service.
PEER opposes the legislation, arguing it would create incentives for more construction of cell towers on public lands. But Huffman said that districts like his, with remote communities scattered amid a patchwork of federal lands, need help in improving communications, partly for public safety reasons.
“This shouldn’t be an issue,” said Huffman. “If you want to avoid distractions in the wilderness, you can just turn off your phone. But you might also want to be able to turn on that phone and make a call if you broke your arm and needed help.”
First responders and other safety officials agree that enhanced cell service helps in many outdoor rescues. But the issue is complicated, said Derek Newbern, a spokesman for King County Explorer Search and Rescue in Washington state.
Telecom companies, he said, can only go so far in expanding cell coverage to wilderness areas, because of lack of roads and electrical transmission lines. And yet when many people go into the back country, they often assume they will continue to have a cell signal, creating a false sense of security.
In August, hundreds of rescuers spent days trying to locate a lost hiker at Mount Teneriffe, a 4,787-foot-high mountain east of Seattle. The hiker initially had cell service, then lost it and wandered before a search helicopter rescued her four days later.
Newbern said he advises adventurers to carry personal locator beacons or a more recent innovation, satellite messengers, in case they get in trouble.
“People will go into the backcountry and think the cell phone will be their savior,” said Newbern. “Sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way.”
Mexican Drug Cartels May Use Legal Marijuana To Take Over Northern California
Update: On January 10, hours after this story was published, the Calaveras County board of supervisors voted to ban commercial marijuana farms, giving local weed farmers four months to pack up and leave. Weed farmers are now considering suing the county to get their money back, claiming that local officials embezzled cannabis fees and taxes to cover up a county budget crisis.
The four men bolted through the forest, exhausted and bleeding from multiple cuts. When they emerged from the trees on that dry summer night in 2016, they spotted a house in the distance. They ran up to it and knocked on the stranger’s door, then frantically asked for help in broken English. The stranger called the police. When the cops arrived, the men told a harrowing story of being beaten by armed guards at an illegal pot farm and fleeing for their lives.
The men, who were all Latino, described to the police where the farm was located, just outside a heavily forested area in California’s Calaveras County. Soon, the authorities sent up a team to raid the farm. What they discovered: more than 23,000 marijuana plants producing upwards of $60 million worth of weed. They also found two women they believe were selling marijuana for the Mexican drug cartels.
For months in Calaveras County, a rural, conservative enclave about 125 miles east of San Francisco, this drug bust generated local headlines. But federal authorities say Mexican drug cartels are propping up black-market marijuana farms like this all across Northern California...
For more than a decade, the Mexican drug cartels have been illegally growing weed in the forests of the United States, and federal agencies have had mixed success destroying these illicit crops. Today, California is the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the U.S., with over 90 percent of the country’s illegal marijuana farms. The authorities say they’re finding cartel-affiliated weed on government-owned lands in states including Oregon, Utah, Washington, Nevada and Arizona, all of which permit some form of medical marijuana. The problem has gotten so bad that in 2016, Colorado began partnering with the Mexican Consulate to bust the narcos.
Today, activists in California counties such as Calaveras are pushing back, trying to ban cannabis farms to cut off the cartels. They say drug traffickers are importing automatic weapons and using illegal, highly toxic pesticides that are eviscerating forest animals and poisoning freshwater sources. “We’re going down the toilet bowl,” says Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio, “and it’s not going to get any better.”
But some legal weed farmers in the area say the authorities and their allies are exaggerating the problem, playing on stereotypes about race and crime to instill fear in locals. As Jack Norton, a Calaveras County marijuana grower, puts it, “Just because a guy and his cousin want to grow weed in the woods doesn’t mean they’re affiliated with ‘El Chapo.’”
In early January, the Trump administration gave federal prosecutors more power to go after state marijuana industries, which are still illegal at the federal level. It's still unclear how that move will affect California.
But in Calaveras, legal weed farmers fear a blanket ban would crush the local economy and cut off millions of dollars in taxes from going to local law enforcement. Last year, the cops in Calaveras started using that money to purchase ballistic helmets, ballistic shields and tactical gun sights—in part to confront a black-market takeover by the drug cartels.
‘It’s Not Cheech and Chong’...