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Yellowstone tower reignites debate over cell phones in the backcountry

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Krista Langlois | Aug 05, 2013 09:10 AM

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.

short shorts and cell phones

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.

Jeff Zapko
Jeff Zapko
Aug 05, 2013 01:50 PM
Include me in the group that cringes at the notion, regardless of the inevitability.

The safety blanket that people think their cell phone doubles as will unquestionably lead to more inexperienced people doing things they should not be doing, requiring rescue even without any threat to life. How long until we see someone pecking away on a laptop deep in the backcountry or talking to clients or the office?

The backcountry is a dangerous place. People die. I carry a personal locator beacon for exactly this reason. Problem solved.

I forget what agency recently put out a press release reminding people that they are not to use the emergency buttons on the PLBs for minor incidents. Good luck getting that message through to the people most guilty of asking for assistance because they just simply have too many blisters to continue. These kind of requests, too, are certain to become more common as people who are shocked to find that places like backcountry wilderness have no cell phone reception are catered to.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Aug 05, 2013 03:09 PM
Having had to listen to spring-break teens yakk away at Vernal Falls in Yosemite AND having once gotten lost myself way in the backcountry of Canyonlands, I do NOT want cellphones in wilderness areas. Well, really, I don't want the ugly infrastructure. If not a locator beacon, you can, I guess, buy a satellite cell phone. Otherwise, I'm totally with Jeff Zapko. I don't want the wilderness uglified by either structural or noise pollution.
Robin Kinney
Robin Kinney
Aug 05, 2013 04:07 PM
1 well placed cell tower doesn't ruin the wilderness but it certainly can make the difference between life & death. Happy YNP is getting another. I hope it is in the Lake area.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Aug 05, 2013 05:01 PM
This may sound unnecessarily callous but I believe we have plenty of people but we don't have plenty of real wilderness. This dependence on constant contact is detrimental to being able to truly appreciate the distinction between what is wild and what isn't, particularly in an increasingly developed country like the U.S.

One of the basic tenets stated in the Wilderness Act was the recognition that humans had the capacity to develop every square foot of land and that if we were to preserve any from that development, we had to do so intentionally. I believe that should include technological development as well as more physical ones.

So count me amongst the curmudgeons.
Susan Markley
Susan Markley Subscriber
Aug 05, 2013 06:22 PM
I carry a cell phone, not because I expect it can bring me a rescue, but because I needed to be able to be reached by my elderly mom or the people who were caring for her. It allowed me an opportunity for wilderness experiences (short ones, for sure) or day trips into more remote areas of Yellowstone, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and other similar places. If I could not be reached, it would limit my opportunity to renew my own spirit. I am far too nervous about my own limitations to be emboldened by my phone. But, it is reassuring to know that as I pass through or near a visitor center, I may be able to schedule a check-in call, listen to messages and return a call. I have seen many other visitors show astounding lack of sense, crawling over barriers, trying to touch animals, going off boardwalks, and various other really stupid things. I saw a father trying to coax his 6 year old daughter down the Grand View trail in Grand Canyon, despite gi-normous warning signs about the trail condition, lack of water, shade, etc. I have been on ranger led programs where it is quite obvious that others didn't even look at the Park web site or visitor guides they were given at the entrance gate. I am certain the others leaving comments have seen such stuff also. So, I don't think cell phones cause a problem, but are more like a symptom of a bigger problem of arrogance, failure to educate oneself, or use good judgement. Cell phones and WiFi are the way most people communicate, whether we like it or not. So I am okay with a compromise that places limited towers, made as inconspicuous as possible, in developed areas and more education to assure that people do not depend upon them.
Sean Boerke
Sean Boerke Subscriber
Aug 05, 2013 07:45 PM
Count me among those who believe wilderness should be wild. Wild does not mean that you can call your buddy sitting in the office and tell him you are on top of a mountain or lounging by a lake. Or call for help whenever you need it. I work in a job that involves doing search and rescue, so I understand the safety argument for cell coverage. But wilderness is not about being safe all the time. It is about more than just having a place where you can't drive a car or and ATV or a bike. It is about an idea. It is about a spirit of freedom, and that includes the freedom to make decisions on your own even if it results in your death. I don't mean that in any callous way. I think that the freedom to make such choices, and the growth that comes from it, is more important to the human soul than knowing you have an instant lifeline whenever you might want it. It's about personal responsibility and the sanctity of being self-reliant.

And let's be honest about how 99.9999999% of cell phone coverage will be used: mundane phone calls and web browsing. Maybe the remaining 0.0000001% of service will save a few lives, but I don't think that is worth the erosion of experiencing Life that the other multi-millions of us will suffer. Keeping cell coverage from creeping into every nook and cranny is a moral and spiritual question much more than it is a "safety" question.
Quin Ourada
Quin Ourada Subscriber
Aug 06, 2013 07:19 AM
Sean hit the nail on the head. The coverage will be used only very rarely for real emergency. The remainder of the time it will bring unnecessary intrusion into the "escape" we are seeking in nature. Critically, I think it is important to consider how this connectivity in the wild will impact the relationship younger generations have with nature
Ralph Cutter
Ralph Cutter
Aug 06, 2013 07:53 AM
If someone really feels the need to have 24/7 contact with caregivers, they can always rent a sat phone by the week or even by the day. The technology is there and there is something to be said about taking responsibility for your own actions. That said, I sincerely doubt any phone company is going to foot the bill to provide cell phone coverage over great expanses of wilderness in the name of public safety. Heck, I can't get AT&T coverage in my home town.
Robin Kinney
Robin Kinney
Aug 06, 2013 11:25 AM
Well said Susan Markley. I don't consider places that the tour buses drop off hundreds of people a day to be 'real wilderness'. Somebody on a phone at the Old Faithful area doesn't ruin the wilderness experience for me because I don't consider hanging out with hundreds of people as wilderness experience anyway. I have yet to see someone on a back country trial (real wilderness) just sitting around talking on a cell phone even if they were in cell range. 99% of the people in a 'real wilderness' area are just gonna use their cell phone to check in to let folks know they are okay or in case of an emergency. Covering the populated areas of a National Park & in the process giving folks in some back country areas access should they need it doesn't seem that awful. As someone who worked in the Lake area for 5 mos & had to drive 6 miles to make a call to check in with family or too report someone harrassing wildlife I am thrilled with the new service.
Scott Lefler
Scott Lefler Subscriber
Aug 06, 2013 04:14 PM
Most cell phone use is non-emergency (like the people who call from the top of mountain peaks just to say they made it). Get a beacon if you are going to use the wilderness. We are already putting up with hikers who want to listen to music but don't use headphones. Listening to one side of a phone conversation is not my idea of a true wilderness experience. Our National Parks were created as places to escape the growing urbanization seen in the late 1800's and early 1900's. If people like John Muir and Stephen Mather were forced to listen to cell phone conversations in the parks they fought so hard for, what would they think?
Dennis McManus
Dennis McManus Subscriber
Aug 06, 2013 07:18 PM
Having never owned a cell phone, and having lived in Yellowstone for four years, I'm sorry cell phones work anywhere in the park. People are used to television and air conditioning and microwaves where they live also--they won't find any of that here either.

Yellowstone is NOT safe and no one should be misled into thinking it is safe. Honestly, too many people are coming here who don't belong here. They come not because they give a damn about ecology or wildlife or geology--they come because it's famous. Most people who come here don't have a clue about dealing with a wild animal. People come here and camp in grizzly country when they've never camped in their own backyard.

I was a curmudgeon on these issues before I got here; the things I've seen have made me more of one.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Aug 07, 2013 02:29 PM
Wish we had a "like" button here, for all the other people who generally agree with me.
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Aug 07, 2013 03:20 PM
Wilderness and cell phones should not ever be used in the same sentence. If you can't disconnect from your cell phone, stay out of the wilderness. Cell phone towers in national parks and the wilderness - I think it is absurd.
Linda VanFossan
Linda VanFossan Subscriber
Aug 08, 2013 08:07 AM
I'm with you, Dennis McManus and Tim Baker!! If you need a cell phone, stay OUT of Yellowstone, Yosemite and all other great Parks. The thought of a loud-talking, misplaced executive berating his secretary about flight times in the midst of such places is beyond tolerance. Not to mention a bored teenager-----------spare me, please!
 
j murray
j murray
Aug 11, 2013 04:33 PM
Cell phones have no place in the wilderness. One should be able to "get away" or "get lost" in the wilderness. And if they don't come out, so be it. Callous, maybe. But if it is too scary of a place for you, stay in the city on your couch. Remember, no one takes and shares pictures of their kids playing on computer games or yapping on a cellphone.

As for the earlier comment about never seeing anyone in the wilderness backcountry in Yellowstone on a cellphone...you have never experienced the displeasure of being on the same trail as a park ranger yapping away on their cell phone for miles into the "wilderness", or sitting by a mountain stream, listening to the birds sing, just to be interrupted by a ringing cellphone. Maybe we should make laws prohibiting texting while hiking or riding a horse. Or maybe if it was hands free, it could be allowed in the wilderness. Not!

Is there even any wilderness left on this planet???
Kurt Angersbach
Kurt Angersbach
Aug 17, 2013 08:44 PM
Thank you, HCN, for running Krista Langlois’s outstanding article. Readers so far appear mighty irked as they see our parks and forests becoming more and more sanitized, urbanized, civilized, what have you. I share this frustration. But having seen firsthand Yellowstone’s transformation from winter quiet to high-summer hustle and bustle over the last decade, I wanted to share another perspective.

The National Park Service states that “[a]round 3,500 employees are hired [by concessionaires] every year in Yellowstone to provide service for the nearly 3 million visitors who annually visit the park” (http://www.nps.gov/yell/parkmgmt/jobs.htm). Perhaps a thousand individuals work directly for the NPS in Yellowstone. So that gives us a little more than four thousand individuals looking out for three million visitors, most of whom arrive over the course of just a few months in the summer. The NPS employees also officiate between visitors and bears, visitors and bison, and visitors and geysers. This list goes on.

To provide additional perspective (compliments of irma.nps.gov/Stats), in April 2012, Yellowstone had 29,056 visitors. By the next month, the number of visitors had increased exponentially, to 268,251. In June, more than half a million people visited (671,825), and in the following month (July 2012), nearly a million people (888,335 !!) came to Yellowstone. August saw more than three quarters of a million visitors (780,286) and September again yielded more than half a million visitors (527,610). Visitor numbers in the hundreds of thousands, it should be pointed out, far exceed the populations of Montana’s/Wyoming’s/Idaho’s largest cities. These numbers also show that more people visit Yellowstone in one month than live in the entire state of Wyoming year round!! (Wyoming population, per the US Census Bureau 2012 estimate, was 576,412. Wyoming’s actual 2010 population figure was 563,626.)

Boring facts when compared with getting away from it all in the wilderness, I know. Nonetheless, if I were tasked with planning and safety for three million people, especially three million people who likely had minimal knowledge of back country skills and etiquette, I might feel the need to support their experience in the least intrusive manner available, even as I continued to remind them that they were visitors in the house of the bear and the bison.

Still, that’s just one person’s perspective. As with every national park and national forest unit, addressing visitor needs is a balancing act. At Yellowstone, the National Park Service provides opportunity for public comment when issues such as allowing construction of cell towers in the park come up. Whenever possible, I try to weigh in on these issues. My guess is that many of Krista’s comment writers do the same. Just don’t give up on the debate, eh!

Kurt Angersbach / Westernlabs
Kurt Angersbach
Kurt Angersbach
Aug 23, 2013 03:32 PM
The debate I was referring to goes back 97 years, to the act establishing the National Park Service and to the phrase within the act that reads “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
(Source: http://www.nps.gov/protect/ and many other places)

I think the NPS has done an excellent job of keeping this ratio in perspective, coming down so frequently on the “conserve” side that any present-day visitor to Yellowstone can easily leave the developed areas of this park and literally become lost (or suffer worse fates) while still remaining within the boundaries of this hugely popular and well-visited park. Others clearly think the NPS could do more.

The line favoring conservation over development has shifted throughout the past century and will no doubt shift again over the coming years.

That is the debate I was referring to, and that debate is most surely worth continuing.

I was not referring to the debate, as it were, established by the comment writers following Krista Langlois’s HCN blog, although I do view the pages of HCN as a near perfect venue for such debates.

I also was not referring to the debate over this particular cell tower. This decision has been made, thus the time to debate this element has clearly passed. Again, though, it is worth watching this decision and the resulting outcomes, as any effects, positive or negative, that result from society having accepted this tower as a part of Yellowstone’s infrastructure could certainly help us when faced with similar decision points in future debates.

Sorry for any confusion over the topic of just which debate I was referring to! (And thanks BC for emailing me directly with your question—now that is technology at work!)

Kurt Angersbach / Westernlabs

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