On July 25, if you’re driving by the new solar-powered emergency call box at the 35 mph bridge next to the Lava Lake Trailhead, give a honk of appreciation or pull over and say thanks in person to Big Sky Rotary volunteers doing their best to keep us all safe in Gallatin Canyon. The work begins around 5:30 p.m. According to this AT&T cellphone service area map, the purple indicates coverage. Notice there’s no purple all along Highway 191—which some commuters believe is a good thing.

Why isn’t there cell service in Gallatin Canyon?

New solar-powered emergency phones help fill gaps in difficult terrain
“Being able to get the wheels in motion for an emergency response could save a life.”—Lee Griffiths with Big Sky Rotary

Once you live in Big Sky long enough, said Lee Griffiths with Big Sky Rotary, you begin to associate specific names and tragic events with the white crosses marking fatal traffic accidents in Gallatin Canyon. So about 10 years ago, said Griffiths, the Rotary installed three emergency call boxes at Moose Creek, Karst Stage and Taylor Fork. 

     While the white crosses remain somber reminders of canyon crashes, these blue beacons project a sense of hope. 

     “It’s a one-touch phone. It automatically dials 911,” explained Griffiths, who along with his fellow Rotarians, are excited to announce upgrades to the current emergency call box network, which will soon stretch from the 35 mph bridge all the way to the boundary with Yellowstone National Park south of Big Sky. 

     That’s the general service area for emergency responders with the Big Sky Fire Department, said Griffiths, owner of Elevation Landscape and Design. 

     For the new 35 mph bridge call box, Rotarian volunteers dug the hole, set the tower and bolted it down. 3Rivers Communications did the trenching for the phone line and on July 25, Big Sky Rotary will put up a solar panel and turn on the new phone. It will serve the Lava Lake Trailhead area and help with rapid response to emergency situations. 

     “Being able to get the wheels in motion for an emergency response could save a life,” said Griffiths.

      “You’ve got the hikers at Lava Lake. You’ve got the rafters and kayakers. I think it’s just such a wonderful thing to have peace of mind when you drive that canyon,” said Sheila D’Amico, a Big Sky Rotarian who commutes to her job at the Bozeman nonprofit Love In The Name Of Christ. 

     The original call boxes along Highway 191 rely on batteries to maintain power in times of need. The solar panel installed last year at the Moose Creek phone changed that, making its service more reliable and over the last year, it’s been used at least a dozen times. 

     “We saw a need. There’s a large section of highway that doesn’t have cell service. It’s a dangerous stretch of road,” added Griffiths. “They (the call boxes) have been effective. People have been using them to get access to emergency services.”

     Looking ahead, Griffiths said Rotary hopes to install another solar emergency phone near where Highway 191 crosses into the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. As for the emergency phone at Karst, said Griffiths, “We might decommission that one. Because it’s so close to Moose Creek and there are houses in the area. But we haven’t made an official decision.”

     A lot of thought goes into the siting of emergency phone boxes. Griffiths said the phones at Moose Creek and the 35 mph bridge are located in the state highway right of way. Rotary approached the Forest Service about possibly siting the call boxes on forest land, but the Custer Gallatin National Forest said it would be two or three years before any phone could go into service. 

     “They just said that’s how backlogged they are on reviewing permits,” said Griffiths. 

  Kathy Nash, special use program manager with Custer Gallatin National Forest, said the agency encourages siting emergency call boxes and cell phone towers on private ground or other public land if possible. 

     One example of this is the cell tower/evergreen imposter installed at Bridger Bowl last year. 

     “That one that looks like a pine tree is on private land,” said Nash, and not the adjacent Forest Service land leased by the ski area. This situation doesn’t surprise those in the tower-siting business. 

     Ask cellphone tower builders why Gallatin Canyon doesn’t have cell service, and the Forest Service is sure to come up. 

     “Cell tower siting can be a particularly difficult thing,” said Andy Henckel with Montana Tower out of Missoula. “It might take three months to build a tower, but it can take up to five years to get the thing approved.”

     The ideal locations in Gallatin Canyon are near the highway, where there’s flat ground with access to electricity and a fiber optic line. 

     But given the rigorous approval process when Forest Service land comes into play, said Henckel, “Sometimes it’s just next to impossible.”

     Thinking aloud, Henckel traced Highway 191, saying there could be good tower locations on private land near Spanish Creek and then again in Beckman Flats. But from there, “Once you go into that corridor, it’s pretty steep. They might have to put in several towers to get continuous coverage just because of the geography. The cellular stuff is probably good for about four miles non-line-of-sight. It does curve around a bit. It’s not going to go through mountains.”

     Montana cell tower siting specialist John Mizelle added, “Over the years, that entire canyon from Gallatin Gateway all the way down to West Yellowstone has been looked at 13 different ways. There are two different issues: One is the Forest Service. The second issue is just the topography of the canyon itself with the curves and the twists and everything else in there. It’s going to require a large number of cell sites to adequately cover the canyon.”

     Between where Highway 191 crosses the Gallatin River south of Gallatin Gateway and Big Sky 22 miles upstream, Mizelle figures clear cell service would require seven or eight tower sites.

     “And with that, we’re still not sure we’re going to get coverage all the way to the Conoco station,” said Mizelle. “So now we’re tying up hundreds of thousands of dollars for that stretch of 22 miles.”

     “To develop a site you’re probably in the neighborhood of $225,000 per site,” continued Mizelle. “Just to get you to the Conoco station we’re $1.5 million.” 

      Double that to $3 million if a cell provider wants to continue coverage all the way to West Yellowstone. 

     Despite the cost, cell service providers continue to examine the Big Sky market for expansion, said Mizelle, “I know a couple of years ago Verizon was exploring south of the Conoco towards the old Corral down there. And I heard T-Mobile is working around Big Sky.” 

     Mizelle helped site the first cell tower in Big Sky in 1992 on Andesite Mountain. That was back in the days of “the big bricks and the bag phones,” said Mizelle. Today, the idea of pushing cell service deeper into wild and isolated communities like Big Sky and Gallatin Canyon comes with concerns about our culture’s growing smart phone addiction and one of its deadliest side effects—distracted driving. 

     “Unfortunately, that’s one of the big drawbacks on cellphones,” said Mizelle. “The best thing that could happen is that Apple and Samsung could build in motion sensors on cellphones. If it’s in motion, it shuts off.”

     Until then, members of the Big Sky Rotary see a dual value in the blue emergency call boxes. First, they provide a lifeline during emergency events. And second, they offer an alternative to delivering cell service to drivers who—in the minds of many regular commuters—don’t need another distraction while navigating Gallatin Canyon. 

     “You don’t want to come around a corner and see someone in your lane coming at you because they’re texting,” said Griffiths. 

     D’Amico agreed, “I would be terrified if they got cell service in the canyon. All those construction guys who are constantly on their phones. I’m not sure I’d ever do that drive again.”

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