Outside of a wet sleeping bag or a case of the runs, few things tick off tent campers more than the roar of an RV’s generator at daybreak. More unsettling for us, though, are the amenities those generators power, like DVD players, laptops and cell phones—the very things we’re in the woods to get away from. Sorry, but the kids can watch Kung Fu Panda back at home. Let them consider the stars in silence for a while.
Unfortunately, there remain few corners of our country that allow us to completely detach from technology. And we can’t even count among them Yellowstone National Park, the country’s most celebrated symbol of wildness.
Last week, the park finalized its wireless communications plan, outlining where it expects to expand wireless capabilities. Basically, it means cell service will be available in most park villages, and WiFi will be allowed in some buildings, lodges and general stores. So if you’re driving around to check out wildlife, you can probably also check e-mail, stocks and sports scores.
The park points to visitor safety as the reason to increase wireless services. Fair enough. But what we find troubling is another primary factor that shapes the plan: visitor expectations of service. It’s a consideration inherent to the plan’s head-scratching goal to “permit high standards of living and a wide sharing of life’s amenities.”
The park’s misguided assumption, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), “is that visitor expectation of, or demand for, these commercial services justifies adverse impacts to park values such as wilderness, views, ‘soundscapes’, communing with nature and escaping, however briefly, the tethers of the modern world.”
What’s interesting, though, is that visitors aren’t demanding these services. In fact, the park’s recently released “Findings of No Significant Impact” acknowledged that most public comments opposed increases in wireless services. More people objected to all wireless coverage than those who supported expanding it.
While that sentiment was apparently ignored, at least the park concedes that cell phone chatter can spoil the scene. “To reduce annoyances of cell phone usage,” the plan states, “courtesy signing and protocols will focus on increasing the distance between visitors enjoying the natural soundscapes and those using cell phones by designating ‘cell phone free’ zones where possible.” We’re guessing courtesy signs won’t stop the typical visitor from calling mom when they spot a baby moose.
Far be it from information hounds such as us to criticize those who insist on staying connected to everyday goings-on. But we all need a reprieve. National parks, of all places, should supply it.