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

Grand Canyon National Park, photo by NSL Photography

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.