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.

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