Cell Phones Arrive in the Nation's Parks

Cell Phones Appear in the ParksCell phones are here to stay. There is hardly a public space which does not include someone with these tiny devices stuck to their ear. Because of the limited reach of wireless networks our National Parks had been an exception, but not for much longer. While I was away, I was sent a story idea on the Park Remark tip line. A reader was concerned about the reports of Yellowstone National Park in secret talks with wireless companies to install new cell phone towers within the park. PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) brought the issue to public light with a news release this week, which has been turned into an article written by the Associated Press. This reader had asked me "are the spoiled ruining the last unspoiled places?"

It is a good question, for sure. But I think you may be surprised on the direction I lean with this issue. Let me start by saying that it disturbs me that these meetings between the Park and cell companies have happened in secret. Why meet in secret? It suggests perhaps, that the Park deliberately chose to hide their plans because they would be met with controversy. This seems cowardly. Let me also state that I think cell towers are ugly. I doubt Ansel Adams would have chosen to include a cell tower in his portraits of our National Parks, they just do not fit at all into the natural landscape. What's worse is our eyes are naturally attracted to these ugly things because their angular lines and geometric angles contrast greatly against the organic and flowing landscape of trees and hills.

It used to be that cellular networks carried just your voice, but today consumers use these networks for data of all types including SMS (text messaging), web, media (like photos), and voice. With the type of networking Yellowstone is considering it would be quite possible, for instance, to boot-up your laptop within sight of Old Faithful and surf the web, in essence turning areas of our National Parks into wireless "hot spots". Within just the last month, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a report called "Americans and their cell phones". The report finds that, as you might expect, cell phones have become a primary source of communication for Americans. It reports that 74% had used their phones in an emergency to gain help. As cell phone features continue to grow, it is my feeling that we will only find these devices become more important and indispensable as a part of our daily routine.

You could argue that our National Parks are a place to escape the daily routine, a place to escape the crush of electronic gadgets in our life. But to apply that today would mean having to leave your car at the gate. Even traditional devices in parks have been modified by electronics; cameras are digital, compasses replaced by GPS. A walk through a typical campground would reveal RVs equipped with satellite dishes, refrigerators, and every other modern day electronically controlled device from home. In fact, Parks themselves have come to rely on wireless computer networks to connect remote offices scattered across hill and dale. With an existing environment of electronics like this, it would be silly to imagine that there be a ban on cell phones or their usage within Parks.

But cell phones, unlike the other listed devices, are dependent on an infrastructure of commercially operated cellular towers. Is it the responsibility of the Park Service to provide this network of towers for our use? I don't think the answer is obvious and it is worthy of debate. In most parks I've visited, a traditional "land line" telephone network exists. To make a phone call on this traditional network means having to pay some commercial carrier a fee for use. I doubt anyone would disagree that this type of private enterprise on our public lands is vital to communication and visitor safety. But land lines are usually buried and out of site, the same cannot be said of cell towers. To keep these towers "invisible" from the landscape, I would suggest that the Parks consider placing the necessary hardware on existing front-country buildings, added near the top of roof lines. Remember too that the larger National Parks depend on a network of wireless radio communication. This network already includes towers of some sort scattered across the park. Why not add the cellular repeaters to this existing tower network? With these solutions, existing view corridors would remain in place and no new visible hardware would be added to the environment. I am not a cellular network expert, and it is possible my ideas for a solution may be missing some important details, but it does seem that a compromise could be made that would not involve an obtrusive visual impact.

Finally, it is important to note that we can be annoying when we use our cell phones in public. That same Pew study found that 82% of Americans had been occasionally irritated by loud and annoying cell users in public places. It is not difficult to imagine an experience like this, standing near an erupting geyser in Yellowstone: "Hey dude, guess where I am right now? Ol' Faithful is exploding and it's totally awesome! Let me send you a photo of it. Catch you later." It is an ugly thought but it is bound to happen. An even more distressing scenario is the same conversation happening in the remote backcountry. Just as we have come to understand that the movie theater, a library, or a business meeting is an inappropriate place to talk on a cell phone, it may mean that visitor education is necessary to prevent annoying cellular behavior among our nation's most special places. Full cell phone coverage may be a reality in the public areas of our National Parks very soon. Are we ready?
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Comments

You are right on with your comments. Thanks for bringing this important issue to light. Are we very far away from seeing "no cell phone" trails and area in our wild places?