Is it time to bring wireless services to the US national parks?

by Ned Levi on February 25, 2013

Grand Canyon National Park, photo by NSL Photography http://www.nslphotography.com

At this point, many of the US national parks, especially in the western states, are largely without WiFi and cellular services.

At Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, developed areas of the park offer some cellular service, but in most of Yellowstone’s 3,500 square miles spanning large areas in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, cellphone and tablet users will have “no service.”

During a visit to Grand Canyon, one of my favorite national parks, I noticed that shortly after entering the park, my smartphone indicated no service. If something happened to my car on the long park road to our lodging, no emergency assistance via cellphone would have been possible.

Does that make sense?

Pressure is building on the US National Park Service (NPS) to add wireless communication to the national parks. The National Park Hospitality Associationconfirming that “cell service and data service is poor – or worse” in the national parks, and that it “in fact may be an irritant that adversely shapes memories of a park visit,” has called for the NPS to provide basic Internet access at all major, developed visitor areas in the national park system, as well as basic cellular service there, and along park roads and trailheads.

Additional pressure is being brought by a “growing number of park visitors.” During my visits to the parks, I’ve personally heard visitor expletives about the lack of cell phone service, especially in the lodges and other accommodations in the parks.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) called the upcoming plan to wire developed areas in 5–10 parks, as a test, “a giant step toward ‘Disney-fying’” the parks. PEER’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, has said, “Solitude values of parks will go by the board, as lodges, tents, trailheads and other park locations become just another place to fiddle with electronic devices.”

I understand PEER’s concerns, but I’m wondering when was the last time Mr. Ruch visited a park like Yosemite, for example. The last time I was there, the “solitude value” at its lodges, camping areas, tents, and trailheads was essentially zero. Between the crying infants, screaming toddlers, arguing adults, radios, music players, etc., quiet didn’t exist in those areas, except in the wee hours.

One major point put forward to justify the installation of wireless services in the national parks is it will provide emergency communication for park visitors.

Opponents of wireless services in the parks have a counter argument. Laura Loomis, National Parks Conservation Association senior director for governmental affairs, stated, “Cell phones give the illusion of safety. They make people think, ‘If I have a cell phone, then someone can rescue me. Maybe I don’t have to be quite as careful and take all the precautions I should have taken prior to coming out here with the understanding that I might not get rescued.’”

I’ve done a lot of hiking, mountaineering, and camping over the years. I’ve seen my share of reckless visitors at national and state parks who are clearly “over their head” out in the wilderness areas of the parks. I really don’t think having a cell phone is going to make these visitors more reckless any more than it will make experienced woodsmen forget their caution.

Wireless services in the national parks can provide important emergency services, especially along the roads which circle and cut through the parks. Wireless services could provide new interactive educational experiences, similar to what’s being done in museums, dramatically improving NPS’ educational services.

Wireless services could reduce NPS costs. Printed materials now handed out to park visitors could be made available electronically. Maps, daily event listings, flyers, background information about flora and fauna and other pamphlets which NPS prints almost every day could be made available for download. Not only could it save money, it would be a green initiative. It would save trees, and reduce air and water pollution from paper making and ink production.

Before going into a national park, I already download the park map to my smartphone, but of course it doesn’t include important construction or weather information on them, which can change often, even hourly.

“Real-time” important information could be made available through email and text alerts concerning fires, weather, roads and other safety information, and an electronic emergency information portal for each national park could be established.

Wilderness proponents like Kent Clement, a professor of outdoor recreation and leadership at Colorado Mountain College, have a point when they say, “The whole idea of wilderness is that it is a place where technology doesn’t invade…When you look at something as technical as a computer or a phone, I think that flies in the face of what wilderness is intended to be.”

Protecting wilderness as wilderness makes sense to me. There is something very special about going into wilderness areas and hearing nothing but the birds, the wind, and running water. That’s not possible in “civilization.”

It must be remembered, there are many areas of the national parks which are not wilderness. There is considerable developed land in the parks, thousands of miles of roads, hotels, campgrounds, restaurants, recreational areas, and visitor centers.

It makes sense to me to immediately bring wireless communication to the developed areas of the national parks, its roads and its trailheads, to provide emergency communication, real-time pertinent park information, interactive educational services, and general park-focused information. Expanding wireless services to other areas can wait until an evaluation and a period of reflection about extending those services can be completed.

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  • klm

    Maybe a compromise is in order? Each park could have an open intranet with up-to-date maps and weather info, plus a cell signal for emergencies. But no calling your office, tweeting everything you do, or asking Siri where the nearest Starbucks is…

  • Aaron

    When I was at the Grand Canyon a couple of years ago, I had cell service in the lodging, as well as at certain spots at the rim. I didn’t start hiking or anything, but I wasn’t in a spot where I didn’t get a signal.

  • BobChi

    Love the idea! People who need to be connected every minute for trivial uses should go Joe’s Ticky Tack Tourist Trap and leave the national parks for people who want to appreciate the majesty of nature.

  • mapsmith

    Then there is that nasty little thing called the Wilderness Act of 1964.

    “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own
    works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the
    earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is
    a visitor who does not remain.”

    The Wilderness, (and most National Parks are mostly Wilderness) is designed as a place of solitude and quiet. The workaday world has no business there. And that includes WiFi and Cell Service.

  • MeanMeosh

    You have a point, up to a point. I can see putting WiFi in the lodges and major campgrounds. If you’re just checking e-mail in your room after dinner and after everyone’s gone to bed, you’re not really disturbing anyone or missing out on anything. I DO have a problem with wiring up an entire park, though. While you’re right that some common areas in places like Yosemite and Yellowstone aren’t particularly places of solitude, you don’t have to go very far to get out into the quiet. Even a “popular” trail somewhere like Yosemite Valley gets pretty quiet once you move away from the visitor center, as the crowds disperse and you end up in groups of a few people. I really don’t enjoy the prospect of bumping into a hiker who isn’t paying attention because he or she is too busy texting or tweeting, or having to listen to Mr. Executive gabber away at an overlook to his secretary to plan next week’s important business meeting. Not to mention, the National Parks are one of the few places in this country where you actually do have the ability to get away from work, and truthfully tell the boss that you’re indisposed and unreachable. I think it should stay that way.

    I think KLM suggests a reasonable compromise. Put WiFi in the lodges and SOME campgrounds (only those in built-up areas), but elsewhere, provide only a basic cell signal (no data) along roads and on trailheads. I also like KLM’s idea of an NPS intranet that provides park and road info – perhaps where you scan a QR code at a trailhead that will pull up a trail map on your phone, along with current advisories like wildlife sightings and severe weather warnings. But I completely agree with BobChi, if you’re the type that goes crazy if you’re not constantly connected, you really don’t belong in a National Park; you’re not going to enjoy yourself, anyway.

  • bodega3

    Not to make light of Ned’s safely concerns, but how did we exist without wireless up until now in the rural areas of the country?

  • NedLevi

    B, we did the best we could. Sometimes we were fine, and other times not so hot.

    Here’s a not so hot, example. Many moons ago, while in college, I was leading a group of 15-16 year old boys climbing. I was a pioneering instructor at the summer camp they attended. Fortunately, I held a number of certifications from Red Cross, and therefore had extensive knowledge of first aid and survival. At the peak, a young man slipped and broke tore open his leg with a compound fracture. The fog was moving in. I sent half the boys down to our campsite with 2 adults, and kept 1 adult with me. One of the adults was to hike out to the Ranger Station in the morning. Which he did.

    Had cell phones existed then, I would have called for help to the Rangers. Frankly, they could have sent a rescue helicopter in to near the peak.

    I temporarily took care of the young man, stopped the bleeding and splinted the fracture as best as I could with the materials at hand. He certainly wasn’t going to die, but things were going to get dicey. We couldn’t get down until mid morning when it was light and the fog. We slept the night in a freak snow storm. By the morning the young man was in shock even though he hadn’t lost much blood. We carried him down.

    At the camp, the Ranger had returned with help and a physician. It took a could of hours to get to a point he could be helicoptered out to a hospital where he spent 4 days. The doc said, we all saved his leg and his life.

    I was once driving near Glacier. My car broke down. I walked several miles until I got to a pay phone for help. Those pay phones don’t exist anymore.

    So that’s what we did. Having cell phones for emergencies makes sense.

  • NedLevi

    With respect, the last time I was at the top of Half Dome, there were so many people there we could have held a baseball team, but I do agree, we want our parks to provide a wilderness experience for those who want it. We want our parks to allow people to get away from everyday living. We want our parks to permit those who desire it some solitude and quiet. I said so in the column.

    Putting WIFI in the developed areas of the parks isn’t going to change anything negatively for anyone, and it can be of great benefit for many. Putting full cellular service in the developed areas of the parks, and along the roads, and at the trailheads will also be of great benefit, with little negative impact, in my opinion.

    I am not, as said in the column, ready to say we should wire vast areas of any of our national parks in the US.

    Heck, I get upset traveling on Amtrak having to listen to someone in the next seat go one for hours with pure drivel on their cellphones. I surely don’t want that in our national parks, but I think where I’ve mentioned, these services make sense.

  • NedLevi

    Laws are changed all the time, and anyone knowing something about the history of the national parks in the US knows that they, in particular, have suffered under they whimsy of law changes in Congress.

    No one has proposed wide spread WIFI in the national parks ever. Beyond everything else, considering today’s technology, no one has the cash to make that happen.

    As to cellular service, some do want cellular service for emergencies to exist in every square mile of every national park. Questions about emergency service are going to persist whether anyone likes the idea or not, and in my opinion, opponents of technology in the parks merely stating that the service doesn’t belong in wilderness areas, or putting forth spurious claims that emergency cellular service will make the parks less safe are doing a great disservice to the parks. Valid arguments and well thought out reason can keep the intended nature of the parks safe, but knee jerk overreaction and bankrupt claims won’t.

    By the way, I’ve gone on a number of rafting, canoing, and hiking journeys in many of the parks over the years, and nowadays, I can’t tell you how many bring satellite phones for emergencies and to do some business while traveling. Technology is coming whether everyone wants it or not.

    Reasonability, not hard rules and bans, can and will help preserve the wilderness.

  • NedLevi

    Personally, if you have cellular service, I don’t know how you’re going to stop calls you don’t want people to make, except through education and showing folks, there’s something better out there if you’ll give it a chance.

  • NedLevi

    As a board member of a “Friends Group” of a National Wildlife Refuge, I get reminded all the time, when we get started thinking about how to ensure the “wilderness” state of the Refuge, by putting forth all kinds of restrictions, that the national parks and national refuges belong to all the people, not just some of the people who “really appreciate” them.

    We need to get over the idea that the parks are only for some of the people. We need to instead, show the people who are “unconnected” to wildlife, to wilderness, the value that it has. We also need to get the “connected” to their technology people, to come to the parks to understand that.

    I’ve never seen anyone, who can walk up to the rim of Grand Canyon, stand in front of the “Mittens” of Monument Valley, or stand at Rainbow Point at the rim of Bryce Canyon, and continue to jabber on a cellphone and not look out for the first time, have their jaw drop and say wow! Get those people into the parks with the promise of some connectivity in some areas and you’ve got a chance to convert them and have more support of limiting connectivity access to only some areas of the parks.

    Moreover, in my opinion, in limited locations, connectivity can provide benefits to the park, the environment, and park visitors which far overshadows its downside.

  • bodega3

    I am for safety. I am not for people using their phones to work while out on a hike or to text when they should be paying attention to the trail or to chat about Aunt Barbara’s date with the local drunk. It is those people that make the mistake of thinking the wilderness is their phone booth and making others have to listen to their mobile devices because they want constant communication. If used properly, technology is wonderful, but we are a world of self centered fools and I don’t want to deal with them in places they shouldn’t be.

    I live in the rurals. We have many, dead zones for cell coverage so I understand the safety concerns. It is the balance between those that abuse the beauty of being out in nature and the necessity of having access to emergency calling. BUT what we don’t need are those who are use to having certain conveniences in urban life expecting it in our rural areas and insisting it comes to be.
    My DIL’s sister recently said to me, “I don’t know how people traveled without their cell phones.”. Ha, I do and we are still here…we survived :-)

  • MeanMeosh

    I understand what you’re saying, but sadly, I think you give people too much credit. A few years ago, my wife and I went to the Prado in Madrid, which for people who like that kind of thing would be considered a wonder on par with our National Parks. I realize it isn’t wilderness, but a museum like the Prado is similar in terms of exhibiting the natural beauty of the world to enjoy. Lo and behold, I come across a tourist, obviously a fellow American, standing in a room blocking everyone’s view of one of the paintings, while busily pecking away at his BlackBerry. If you make technology too accessible in the parks, I’m afraid THAT’S the kind of tourist you’re going to end up with – the kind that WOULD be too busy tweeting about last night’s baseball game while standing in front of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to actually enjoy it.

  • mapsmith

    Ned, you also have to realize that the Parks are the reason for the visit. That is why you do not find Telephones in the rooms of the lodges in the parks (nor Television). There are reasons to maintain the outdoors aspects of the parks and lodges.

    As well, how many people would actually injure themselves more severely while walking along the Rim of the Grand Canyon while Texting. or worse while hiking the trails below the rim. Same for Yellowstone, walking into scalding water. (or worse yet, ignoring the kids walking up to a geyser?) Yosemite is a pain in the Valley now, let alone with WiFi available.

    As you mentioned if you are in an area that you might need rescue, purchase a Satellite phone.

  • bodega3

    If they can’t get their without cell service, then they don’t need to travel there. There are reasons we have protected these places for future generations and if you can’t visit there without your technology, stay home. It is call the wilderness for a reason and we need to respect it.

  • james

    Yeah and the guy on the BlackBerry was was probably probably tapping out something profound like, “Guess where I am now?”

  • pauletteb

    No! “Safety” concerns aside, the last thing I want as I hike along a trail is or enjoy a beautiful view is hearing some idiot on his/her cell phone discussing business or providing a step-by-step description of the sights. These are the same morons who hit the trail in sandals and stinking of cologne/aftershave. Most of us go to national parks to get away from these people! It’s bad enough we have to listen to them in restaurants and just about everywhere else.

  • pauletteb

    A one in 100,000 true emergency isn’t worth having to listen to the morons. Once the genie is out of the bottle . . .

  • LonnieC

    Has anyone even considered what the cell towers will do to the views???

  • NSL14

    To start, your stat isn’t close to reality. In parks like Yosemite, typically they have to send out “search and rescue” for almost 7 incidents per 100K visitors annually.

    I don’t know what price you put on human life, but for me, a little occasional loss of silence is little to pay for these lives to be saved, and their bodies to end up being whole.

    May your words never come back to haunt you, and I certainly hope you’re never among those who need emergency assistance which ideology has kept from you.

    As to the genie, it’s already out of the bottle. Despite their high cost, there are many, many satellite phones on the trails these days, and among those on the “deluxe” tours, such as I’ve noticed, they definitely aren’t lightly used.

    Regardless, I haven’t seen any big push by visitors or vendors alike for WIFI outside of the developed areas of the parks, and cellular services beyond the bounds of the developed areas, roads, and trailheads.

    Just so you know. My smartphone is with me everywhere I go throughout the world. So far I’ve traveled to 6 continents with my phone. By 2015, it will be every continent. I’ve been to hundreds of spectacular parks across the globe, and camped, hiked, rafted, fished, canoed, walked, cruised, sailed, gone swimming, diving, flown, climbed, driven, taken a bus, etc. I’ve been with tons of travelers who have always had their phone with them too. I’ve traveled with many with satellite phones. That doesn’t mean I or my fellow travelers use our phones willy-nilly, but there are a few, and I mean, just a few, who do.

    In large national parks in Africa, North America, South America, Asia and elsewhere I’ve run across the occasional phone abuser in the park areas I’d term “wilderness,” but I’ve found a kind word was all that was needed to regain the “quiet” of nature, where you can actually hear nature and its surroundings.

    There’s always going to be one person who isn’t “with the program” but they can be appropriately dealt with.

  • klm

    That’s why I called it an intranet. It would be pretty complicated, but hidden towers at lodges, attractions and along roads would provide a signal the the park’s own network, which would not be connected to the internet or the national telephone network. Your phone would say “emergency calls only,” and any non-park website would give you a DNS error.
    But I can imagine there would be _more_ general frustration from visitors, not less, as in “if they went to all that effort to put in towers, why not give us the whole shebang?” It would take an enormous, and ongoing, marketing campaign to make sure _most_ people know….

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