It was just about a year ago that I wrote about the invasion of "GPS Rangers" into the national parks. Back then I wasn't so keen on this hand-held, rent-by-the-day electronic tour gizmo, but there does seem to be a hidden blessing in it.
Manufactured by BarZ Adventures, these devices use GPS coordinates to trigger a video commentary of the immediate area. Already the devices have been deployed at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah, Shenandoah National Park, and Death Valley National Park, as well as Independence Hall. If not already, the device soon will be available in Zion National Park.
My main concern with GPS Ranger is probably old-school. I think park interpretation should be delivered by in-the-flesh rangers skilled in interpretation, not some electronic device cued by a GPS location and not a question. Too, I worry that this sort of technology makes it easier to remove the interpretative ranger from the national parks and, in the process, automate interpretation.
Now, the creator of GPS Ranger, Lee Little, commented on the Traveler last September that he was prompted to devise this unit because he found himself in a national park without a ranger in sight.
"The goal of our system is to offer an educational tour for visitors that they most likely would not have gotten given the cut backs in staffing in our national treasures," Mr. Little said at the time. "Did you know that the GPS Ranger tour in Death Valley has over 3 hours of video content all approved by the Death Valley interpretive staff?"
Now, I'm sure the debate over the propriety of this unit in a park visitor's hands can, and likely will, continue.
But here's an interesting twist I learned just this week: The units can tell park managers where visitor traffic is greatest. Too, managers can alter tour content on a daily basis and so possibly direct traffic to your so-called "off-the-beaten-path" park feature or resource or away from an over-taxed or over-crowded site. Park managers can even drop sites that are closed for maintenance.
Beyond that, the devices can offer tours in American Sign Language (ASL) for the deaf/hard-of-hearing visitor.
With that said, the question remains: Is this a good move for the National Park System?