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for people who care about the West

A cellular call of the wild

  A trip into the wilds of Yellowstone National Park just got tamer. Hikers can now toss a cellular phone into their backpacks.

"What's next, cable?" asked a grubby Los Angeles resident fresh in from a couple of nights in the forest, where he spotted one of the park's fabled grizzly bears.

Park officials say the benefits outweigh the negatives. Under a permit worked out with Cody, Wyo.-based Metacomm Communications, crews will install three cellular transmitters inside park boundaries. In exchange for the permit, the 2.2 million-acre park gets $500 annually plus 70 phones and 5,000 free minutes a month. If a disaster like the fires of 1988 hits, unlimited phone service is provided free.

Assistant park superintendent Marv Jensen said the park is abiding by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires federal land managers to allow commercial cellular facilities where it is appropriate.

"It's (the hikers') choice whether they decide to take a cellular phone, and therefore intrude on their wilderness experience," said Jensen. "It's not going to affect anyone else."

Jensen said the transmitters will have no environmental effect because they'll be installed on existing antennae at Old Faithful, Grant Village and on top of Mount Washburn, one of the park's tallest peaks.

* Dan Egan