America's national parks weigh solitude against cellular access

SALMON, Idaho Sat Jan 19, 2013 1:01pm EST

1 of 4. Old Faithful Geyser, the first geyser in the park to be named erupts in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, in this June 22, 2011, file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart/Files

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SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - As cell phones, iPods and laptops creep steadily into every corner of modern life, America's national parks have stayed largely off the digital grid, among the last remaining outposts of ringtone-free human solitude.

For better or worse, that may soon change.

Under pressure from telecommunications companies and a growing number of park visitors who feel adrift without mobile-phone reception, the airwaves in such grand getaway destinations as Yellowstone National Park may soon be abuzz with new wireless signals.

That prospect has given pause to a more traditional cohort of park visitors who cherish the unplugged tranquility of the great outdoors, fearing an intrusion of mobile phones - and the sound of idle chatter - will diminish their experience.

Some have mixed emotions. Stephanie Smith, a 50-something Montana native who visits Yellowstone as many as six times a year, said she prefers the cry of an eagle to ring tones.

But she also worries that future generations may lose their appreciation for the value of nature and the need to preserve America's outdoor heritage if a lack of technology discourages them from visiting.

"You have to get there to appreciate it," Smith said. "It's a new world - and technology is a part of it."

Balancing the two aesthetics has emerged as the latest challenge facing the National Park Service as managers in at least two premier parks, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, consider recent requests to install new telecommunications towers or upgrade existing ones.

There is no system-wide rule governing cellular facilities in the 300 national parks, national monuments and other units the agency administers nationwide. Wireless infrastructure decisions are left up to the managers of individual park units.

The agency's mission statement requires it to protect park resources and the visitor experience, but each individual experience is unique, said Lee Dickinson, a special-uses program manager for the Park Service.

"I've had two visitors calling me literally within hours of each other who wanted exactly the opposite experience: One saying he didn't vacation anywhere without electronic access and the other complaining he was disturbed by another park visitor ordering pizza on his cell phone," Dickinson said.

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

Wireless supporters say more is at stake than the convenience of casual phone conversations. Cellular providers say new wireless infrastructure will boost public safety by improving communications among park rangers and emergency responders.

They argue that the ability to download smartphone applications that can deliver instant information on plants and animals will also enrich park visitors' experiences.

"Our customers are telling us that having access to technology will enhance their visit to wild areas," said Bob Kelley, spokesman for Verizon Wireless, which is seeking to install a new 100-foot cell tower at Yellowstone.

Rural communities that border the national parks also stand to benefit from enlarged cellular coverage areas.

On the other side of the debate, outdoor enthusiasts worry that bastions of quiet reflection could be transformed into noisy hubs where visitors yak on cell phones and fidget with electronic tablets, detracting from the ambience of such natural wonders as Yellowstone's celebrated geyser Old Faithful.

Expanding cellular reception may even compromise safety by giving some tourists a false sense of security in the back country, where extremes in weather and terrain test even the most skilled outdoorsman, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Tim Stevens, the association's Northern Rockies director, said distractions like meandering moose already challenge the attention of motorists clogging park roads at the height of the summer tourist season.

"People brake in the middle of the road to watch animals. The added distraction of a wireless signal - allowing a driver to text Aunt Madge to say how great the trip is - could have disastrous consequences," he said.

Yellowstone already offers some limited mobile-phone service, afforded by four cellular towers previously erected in developed sections of the park.

But vast swathes of America's oldest national park, which spans nearly 3,500 square miles across the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, still lack wireless reception in an age dominated by Wi-Fi and iPad users who expect access even in the most remote locations.

Park officials see definite signs that a portion of the roughly 3 million annual visitors to Yellowstone, which crafted a wireless plan in 2008, are finding the lack of cell phone coverage disconcerting.

Park spokesman Al Nash said he routinely fields calls from anxious relatives of Yellowstone visitors unable to contact their loved ones.

"They say, ‘My gosh, my niece, daughter or parents went to Yellowstone, and we haven't heard from them for three days,'" he said.

(Reporting and writing by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and David Gregorio)

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Comments (6)
aguacate wrote:
National Parks and those which lie outside of the reach of technology should remain as natural as possible. The purpose of these parks is to present the visitor with a environment that is as it was, if technology is allowed, they become a sort of oxymoron. There are limited infrastructure within these parks for allowing visitors to contact the outside world, there should not be a need for eye-sores popping up on every mountain top, even with towers the terrain would not be 100% covered since topography would create “dead” zones as already exist in some hilly urban areas. The point of going to nature is just that, not to read your e-book, not to chat with mom or update your profile(s). If this is allowed then many people will just visit these parks and camp out in their tents with their electronics and be witness to nothing these parks offer. It is a bad idea and there is no good reason to allow this; what would come next? Electric escalators to reach summits? Light poles? Cable? Technology and Nature are at odds with each-other and should be forever. In the end these companies will pull their strings in Washington and for a bit of profit forsake the quality of our National Parks.

Jan 19, 2013 2:21pm EST  --  Report as abuse
americanguy wrote:
Nothing better than going somewhere to enjoy a movie, read a book, tour a nature area, go the beach, take a walk in a park, and having a bunch of women carrying on stupid ignorant nothing conversations on cell phones non stop. I say women, because 99.9% of the time, it is women. Yak yak. And they talk loud to get attention as if to say “listen to me, I am important not you, in your face”. In the rare times when it is a man, the conversation is quick and over quickly.
No problem, I always just walk as far away from their stupid addiction as I can, as quickly as I can. Sometimes if they are really bad, I mock them as I walk away. I guess they don’t realize how pathetic their lives are.
But in this country money rules, so the addict pushers will make sure people can use cell phones and run up big bills. That is why cell phones and driving is coming close to DUI’s in causing accidents and deaths on our roads. A little bribe money, and people who are not addicted to cell phones and devices pay the price and lose our liberty and freedom.

Jan 19, 2013 2:24pm EST  --  Report as abuse
aguacate wrote:
Addressing the safety concerns, park rangers and employees working in remote locations carry at least two forms of communication, their satellite linked phones as a final resort should emergencies arise.

Jan 19, 2013 2:30pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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