* Yellowstone considers proposal to erect new wireless tower
* Some visitors feel cut off without mobile-phone reception
* Both supporters and detractors cite public safety
By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho, Jan 19 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
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
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 su c h 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
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
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
(Reporting and writing by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve