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Parks Tread a Digital Divide

Wired World Clashes With Idyllic Scenes as Officials Bring Technology to Nature

From the Wall Street Journal
Nov. 5, 2013
By Ana Campoy

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Sitting beside the cobalt-blue water of a mountain lake more than 7,000 feet above sea level, Lisa Miller had her eyes on her mobile phone, sending vacation pictures to her daughter.

The 53-year-old retired nurse’s husband, meanwhile, wanted no part of tapping into the area’s recently added cellular access, choosing to take in Yellowstone Lake’s splendor without disruption from gadgets.

“With the cellphone, you keep doing the same things you do in your busy life,” which distracts from seeing the sights in the park, said Chris Miller, a 52-year-old software executive from Bend, Ore. “I’m here to see it and remember it.”

The Millers’ different views on mixing technology and nature underscore the competing interests the National Park Service faces as it debates how to expand mobile-phone and wireless Internet service within park grounds.

Park managers across the country are devising ways to use wireless technology to engage park-goers—from coded signs they can scan with their cellphones to access online information about park features to text messages with weather and traffic information. Park officials say enhancing wireless access is one way to connect with visitors increasingly attached to their electronic devices.

But as park officials go digital, they are struggling with how to keep those tools—and the cell towers and other equipment they require—from interfering with visitors’ enjoyment of nature.

“There is an upside and a downside” to boosting wireless technology, said Sheridan Steele, superintendent at Acadia National Park, on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. “We’d like to minimize the negative.”

Critics argue that cellphone signals simply don’t belong in national parks. Once cellular access is available, they say, controlling how it is used by visitors is nearly impossible.

“It’s hard to commune with nature when somebody is able within earshot to make stock orders or conduct a business meeting,” said Jeff Ruch, of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that represents government workers and scientists concerned over environmental policy.

Opponents also point to the obtrusiveness of cellular towers in marring the natural beauty of America’s parks. The structures sometimes stick out above the tree line, they point out.

For now, park officials are proceeding with plans to introduce modern technological amenities while trying to minimize the impact on the environment and the visitor experience by keeping cellphone coverage out of the backcountry and communications infrastructure out of view.

The park service is planning a pilot program at a few parks to explore how technology can improve visits, “especially for new audiences who rely on smartphones and tablets to connect them to the things that are important to them,” said Jeffrey Olson, an agency spokesman. Cell and Internet service, he added, will be available only in developed areas, such as visitor centers and lodges.

Acadia National Park and Friends of Acadia, a local conservation group, enlisted a team of high-school students to use technology to highlight the park’s offerings. One project: Setting up a Wi-Fi network in a botanical garden so visitors can scan codes to learn about native plants.

At Yellowstone, visitors can link to the park’s online trip planner by scanning QR codes in the visitor booklet. A private app alerts users of wildlife sightings—if there is cellphone service. Much of the 2.2-million-acre park is still a dead zone.

Although mobile-phone towers started popping up in parks across the country in the mid-1990s, large swaths of parkland remain unconnected. The park service doesn’t have an exact count of the number of cell towers on the sites it manages—it estimates about 50—but is compiling a database to better track how land in the park is being affected.

Businesses operating the hotels and restaurants within the nation’s park grounds have been pushing for improved access. They envision a wireless network that would be free for checking email, but would require a fee for more data-heavy activities, such as streaming a movie, said Derrick Crandall, a spokesman for National Park Hospitality Association, which represents those companies.

The group says commerce can coexist with nature. The group created a temporary Wi-Fi network at Grand Canyon National Park last year, installing two small satellite dishes in one of the park’s out-of-view service areas. “It was completely unseen by the public,” Mr. Crandall said of the Wi-Fi setup.

Meanwhile, a key cog of park officials’ plans is to educate visitors to be courteous, given that “almost everyone who carries a cellphone will attempt to use it,” said Doug Madsen, a park planner who regularly doesn’t carry a phone.

Signs near Old Faithful ask vacationers to turn off their phones and “enjoy Yellowstone’s natural sounds,” though many on a recent afternoon held loud conversations or were checking email.

 

That is the kind of thing that Terry Schaedig, a 61-year-old property-tax assessor in Lewistown, Mont., is trying to avoid and fears will become prevalent if cell service is expanded in national parks. He signed an online petition against the park service’s pilot program.

“Maybe people need to set down their cameras and cellphones and realize what a great place it is,” he said.

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