Use Guidelines for Cell Phones in Parks

Cell Phone Use Guidlines for National ParksAs Yellowstone National Park moves closer to a plan to boost cell phone service within its boundaries, I have seen a lot of web chatter about the use of cell phones within our parks. I have particularly enjoyed reading the series of comments left on a recent National Park Traveler post. I have a few thoughts of my own about the use of cell phone in the National Parks.

Cell Phones Are Here
A reality that must be addressed in this argument is that cell phones are everywhere. Even after this most recent terrorist threat, cell phones are still allowed on airlines. Theaters, restaurants, museums, and hospitals recognize that their visitors probably have cell phones in their purses or pockets. These businesses have cell phone policies that start with the presumption that you are already carrying a cell phone: "As a courtesy to your fellow patrons, please silence your cell phone".

Appropriate Use
Are there locations within a national park where cell phone use is appropriate? My answer is absolutely, yes. When I travel through the parks, I frequently stay in the park campgrounds. If I choose to phone home from the privacy of my tent or picnic table, I cannot see how that has a detrimental impact upon my national park experience or the experience of my fellow campers, especially when the alternative is to wait at the single public pay phone for my turn to talk. There are other places within a park that I see cell phones as appropriate: in the lodge, in the gift shop, in the parking lot, waiting at the toll booth, and in the car (not the driver, a passenger) to name a few. I think it is appropriate to throw a cellphone (turned off) in a backpack in case of real emergency on a hike, but I know that not everyone agrees with that.

Inappropriate Use
Most other places in the park I would consider inappropriate for cell phone use. Just like in a restaurant or theater, the use of a cell phone on a park trail or at a scenic overlook has a detrimental impact on the experience of fellow park visitors. On a recent day-hike at Mt. Rainier National Park, I watched in surprise as a pre-teen shuffled down the trail talking into his cell phone, his parents hiking not far behind. My thought was "what an idiot". Why drive hours to get to the park, pay a fee to get through the gate, hike to escape-it-all only to pull out your cell phone when you've finally "arrived"? This was an isolated incident though. There were many many folks and families hiking around on my recent trip, and not one other group felt the need to talk on their cells while they were hiking.

Official Use
I can imagine that there is an official need for cell phone use within the parks. At over 2.2 million acres, a park like Yellowstone is not your typical office environment. Reaching folks in the field is typically done today with wireless radios ("walkie-talkies"). But radio communications are "open". Anyone equipped with a radio-scanner could hear sensitive information broadcast over the air. Cell phones provide a convenient and private way to handle intra-park communications.

National Park Response
I do not think it is, nor should it be, the responsibility of National Park Service to provide additional cell coverage within the parks as a response to public pressure for better coverage. With the exception of the largest parks, most NPS units already have cell coverage bled from neighboring gateway communities. As this cell service map demonstrates, there are very few areas around the country that cannot already pick up a cell signal. And so it does bother me to read about the Yellowstone plan to provide additional coverage within the park, especially considering that it is already 2/3 covered [pdf]. I am particularly troubled to learn that Yellowstone has been meeting behind closed doors with cell providers to draw up this plan. They have opened up the idea for public comment, but as I understand it, the plan is all but set.

If additional coverage is required, extreme care should be taken in selecting locations for cellular equipment. There should be no new man-made "footprint" added to the parks. New equipment can be added to the pre-existing man-made infrastructure that already exists within the parks. Add the cell equipment to park service building roof-tops (restrooms, lodges, admin buildings, visitor centers, toll booths, etc), or attach it to pre-existing towers currently in use for radio communications. Add a restriction on height, don't let this equipment become an eye-sore. Don't bring the equipment anywhere near the wilderness backcountry, no need for a man-made presence there.

Visitor Education
If cell phone coverage exists in parks, and if visitors bring their cell phones on their visit, I believe the National Park Service response on the subject of cell phones should be a set of guidelines or principles on appropriate use within the parks. I am not talking about a new set of rules or laws here. I don't think it should be illegal to use a cell phone. But, I think it can be officially stated that using a cell phone in an area that will impact the experience of other park visitors is highly discouraged. The NPS could create a bullet point list and include it in printed material available to the public, like park maps or newspapers. Just as I am glad for the reminder to silence my cellphone before a movie, visitors may also appreciate the reminder that in a national park environment cell phones are not necessary.

Cell phones are still a relatively new technology. We are beginning to get over the novelty of these things and discover when and where we are comfortable using them. There is a social norm developing with this technology. Everyone gives dirty looks to the patron at a nice restaurant who forgot to silence their cell phone, or worse, decides to answer that phone. In the parks, it has only been a decade or so that the same cold shoulder has been applied to the person who decides to light-up a cigarette at a crowded overlook. With time, and with some direction from park management, the misuse of cell phones in our National Parks will fall under the same social judgment.


I'm sure cell phone users will be just as willing as smokers were to give up smoking in public places once they realized that it annoyed others (not to mention the potential health risks).