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Know the West

Technology has complicated our relationship to winter

In this increasingly digitized West, who is shut out?

 

Recently, I rented a pair of backcountry skis and skins, a shovel, beacon and a probe. As a kid in suburban Denver, with parents who weren’t into skiing the way I wanted to be, I always felt like an outsider, pushing in. But now, from my home in Durango, Colorado, I’m regularly out “there,” thanks to increasingly affordable technological advances that are opening the backcountry to more people — making the West’s natural world more accessible. But as more of us push deeper into the backcountry, we disrupt these secluded spaces, both in small ways that we don’t see and in bigger ways we don’t yet fully understand. As tech infiltrates the backcountry, we have a responsibility to consider what that means.

Artist’s conception of cell towers reaching into the Teton Range.
Photo by Ryan Dorgan; photo illustration by Clay Rodery/High Country News
This year’s Outdoor Rec & Travel special issue asks who — and what — belong in the backcountry. In our cover story, Jimmy Tobias reports from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, where a massive project, pushed by the telecom industry and rubber-stamped by the National Park Service, will erect cellphone towers to link the park’s most disconnected reaches. Tobias’ investigation, drawn from internal Park Service documents, touches on an uncomfortable tension: The federal government seems more interested in creating broadband access where it’s not wanted, often where the West’s most privileged are fighting it, than in building infrastructure in communities where internet access is desperately needed.

In a package of three reported stories, Editorial Fellow Helen Santoro and writers Christine Peterson and Page Buono examine the unintended impacts of advanced technology on wildlife. Elsewhere in this issue, two essays ponder how technology determines access the natural world. Writer and ornithologist J. Drew Lanham tracks the history of York, the enslaved man who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their Westward expedition. Back then, York wandered West on white terms; now, Lanham makes his own journey “out West” and encounters York’s ghost along the way. In her essay, Raksha Vasudevan escapes seasonal depression by snowshoeing, exploring the closed-off world of winter with her family.

Paige Blankenbuehler, associate editor.
Taken together, these stories challenge our values in an increasingly digitized West. And just as my trip up Wolf Creek did for me, I hope these stories will help you re-evaluate the significance of winter, a time of vulnerability for the West’s wild, and non-wild, inhabitants. Technology disrupts our natural relationships to nature, and while it can render wilderness more accessible for some, it throws up barriers for others, making parts of the West all the more exclusive. It is a privilege to be in these places. Let us never forget that.