Quiet places

Telecom service need not go everywhere

The U.S. National Park Service is working to complete a list of five to 10 parks for a pilot program on improved digital access.

The parks of Colorado are not likely to be among the first test sites, because providing cellphone and wireless service in canyons and on mountains is difficult and expensive. While being able to phone for help after falling off a ledge is an attractive possibility, a proposal to erect a tower on the mesa overlooking Cliff Palace would not be well received. In those places, a wireless network might make a great deal of sense, but in such terrain, the technological challenges still loom large – which, of course, is why communication there is so difficult now.

NPS has no plans to attempt coverage of every inch of most parks. Some cover hundreds or even thousands of square miles, and visitation across most of that terrain is sparse. There, the goal would be to improve service to major roads and to places where visitors congregate. Some attractions managed by the park service, such as national historic sites and battlefields, are tiny and often have adequate cell coverage from outside their boundaries.

Better electronic communications would enable visitors to summon a ranger in an emergency and be rescued more quickly, and they could receive alerts about flash floods, wildfires and road closures, or more prosaic issues such as traffic jams caused by wildlife and gawkers. Each park could provide travelers with access to virtual trail maps as well as a collection of interpretive resources unavailable in the basic pamphlets available to pick up at the trailhead. That would reduce the number of newspapers and brochures that would otherwise need to be printed, and would allow instant updates.

Those are all positive improvements. What is not so positive is the possibility that park visitors will keep their eyes focused on their phones and never see or comprehend the natural wonders and the history around them, but human nature falls beyond the purview of NPS.

Concessionaires favor expanded cellphone and Internet service because their customers want it. Parents vacationing without their children do not want to be completely out of touch. Employers expect their workers to be available by phone or email, even on vacation. Travelers want to be able to make a reservation at the next stop on their trip. Some prospective park visitors may be less likely to come if they cannot connect with the outside world at least once a day. Others simply now depend on their phones, tablets and laptops for communication and entertainment. That is fair, although not necessarily good.

Whether, and at what cost, NPS should cater to those demands to bring instant communication into the heart of the places it is charged to preserve is another question.

Eventually, and probably not too far into the future, no part of the United States will remain beyond the reach of instant communication – which, in some places, will be too bad. But it is fair to expect that soon, technology will facilitate that communication with much less resource damage. In places where land lines have already been run, the environmental and archaeological harm done by running bigger lines may not be great, but soon we will not need land lines anywhere. There are places where cell towers should not be built, and the most pristine places left in the country are surely among them, especially as evidence mounts about the negative effects.

Pilot projects are fine, as is connecting the places where people gather, but let’s not rush to bring phones and the Internet into the last quiet places we have.