Yellowstone tower reignites debate over cell phones in the backcountry

 

I’m probably too young to be a good curmudgeon, but I nonetheless subscribe to Ed Abbey’s view of wilderness: it doesn’t need to be safe and accessible for everybody. Put ramps and roads and signs and cell phones into our cities, but please, leave them out of the backcountry. Sure they make it safer, but the element of risk is part of what defines the outdoors, and part of what draws me to it.

Judging from recent developments in Yellowstone, I may be in the minority. On July 23, the National Park Service approved its sixth cell phone tower for Yellowstone National Park, adding to dozens of towers already sticking out of other national parks around the country. The new 100-foot Verizon Wireless tower will mostly improve cell phone coverage in developed areas of Yellowstone, but may also include some “spillover” into the backcountry.

Public affairs officer Al Nash said that the park is simply giving people the basic services they expect. “Overwhelmingly what we hear from visitors is they are surprised that cell service is so limited and so spotty,” he said. “Their personal experience where they live is that cell service is ubiquitous.”

Visitors to Yellowstone’s Facebook page weren’t quite as consistent in their support, with most comments (to put it mildly) leaning toward “dislike.”

The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits motors and even bicycles within designated wilderness boundaries, but says nothing on the subject of technology. Tech proponents argue that cell phones offer safety and convenience, while wilderness purists say that they're an annoying distraction. Plus, they say, the belief that you can phone your way out of a hairy situation creates an illusion of safety, enticing people without wilderness skills to use technology as a substitute for training and experience. Tales abound of inexperienced people wandering the backcountry with cell phones, making unnecessary calls to search and rescue that can put volunteers in danger, or at the very least, waste their time and money.


It seems the wilderness elitists are losing. There are now Instagram photos taken from the summit of Everest and apps developed by wilderness medicine organizations to record vital signs that can then be transmitted to search and rescue. One mountain biker wrote recently that many adventure sports enthusiasts she knows use their phones to check the weather and avoid unfavorable conditions, but by never getting rained on, they also distance themselves from a real connection with nature.

While those examples may seem trite, the July deaths of three hikers in the wilderness area on the Arizona-Utah border known as the Wave are not. The trio of deaths (including a 27-year-old mother of two, whose husband hiked to cell phone range to call for help after she collapsed)  has prompted the Bureau of Land Management to consider increasing safety in the area through better cell phone coverage -- which, along with the Yellowstone announcement, has prompted a re-hashing of the cell-phones-vs-wilderness debate.

HCN has published its share of anti-cell phone rants over the years. The most moving arguments, though, aren’t the pleas to turn off your phone and experience sweet, glorious nature, but rather heartbreaking stories like the one about the Wave. One particularly poignant letter to the editor asks readers to imagine themselves for a moment alone in the wilderness with a victim of an accident. Would you wish for a cell phone then, to call for help? When editor Jodi Peterson heard a voice in Mesa Verde National Park that may have belonged to a missing hiker this summer, might cell phone service have helped save the man’s life?

These are hard questions, especially for self-described wilderness snobs like myself. Of course, I don’t want to watch someone die because of a lack of cell phone service. I don’t want to oppose something that could save someone’s life, or my own.

But ultimately, though the argument against improved cell phone coverage in the wilderness can come across as selfish, trite or nostalgic, it stems from a deep love of nature, from wanting to preserve something that's meaningful and powerful and hard to articulate. Maybe it’s inevitable that communication networks will one day permeate every canyon and mountaintop, but as long as I’m alive, I hope that no matter the risk, I will more often feel the sting of campfire smoke in my eyes than the strain of squinting at a screen. I hope there will always be places where you cannot check your phone to look up how to start a fire in the rain but rather must crouch on a wet, rocky beach, trying to ignite a handful of tinder while gray sky closes in and seagulls reel through the fog and the rest of the world seems far, far away.

Image credit flickr user Wetwebwork.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News and carries a SPOT messenger when she ventures into the backcountry.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...