Reader Participation Day: Will Expanded Wi-Fi Enhance The National Park Experience?

Will expanded wireless service for cellphones and the Internet enhance your national park experience, or will it clutter it with a technological Disneyification of the parks, one that will detract from, not add to, the national park experience?

That's a fitting question to raise this week, as the National Park Service, prodded in part by the National Park Hospitality Association, is going to test the value of expanded Wi-Fi service in a handful of parks.

We're awaiting details on the trial run, which purportedly is designed to offer you Wi-Fi not just in and near visitor centers and lodges, but possibly also along roads through the parks and at trailheads.

There are some pros and cons to this proposal that are quick to cite.

Pros

It could quicken response to emergencies, such as vehicle accidents or visitor heart attacks. And it could reduce the Park Service's trash load by replacing printed park newspapers and brochures with downloadable e-versions.

Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said such real-time connectivity could be used to alert visitors to rapidly changing weather conditions. While that might be so in the front country, what about those folks in the backcountry where the enhanced connectivity is not expected to reach? If those folks can survive without real-time alerts, why not those in the front country who have more immediate places to seek shelter?

And if better cellphone coverage is needed to speed help to front-country accidents, why not provide the same coverage to backcountry areas, where more than a few accidents occur every year? Couldn't cellphone coverage blanketing a place like Grand Canyon National Park help rangers respond to visitors in distress somewhere down in the Inner Gorge?

Along that line, how far up a trail might the signal reach? Will it extend up the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park, for instance, so visitors can be warned not to get too close to the Merced River as it flows furiously out of the high country during spring melt?

Will smaller parks, places such as Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, or Cumberland Island National Seashore along the Georgia coast, or Congaree National Park in South Carolina be wired, or will they be deemed too small to justify the cost? What about units of the National Park System that don't have in-park lodges, places like Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah, or Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina?

Cons

Could the proposed connectivity actually diminish the interpretive experience -- can a two-dimensional app really compete with a talking ranger, one who can field and answer questions? The answer to that question might still be evolving, as there is a non-profit organization out there working with the Park Service to develop content for the day when the wireless gates are thrown open.

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How will this "unique solution" evolve? Will wonderful museums such as the one at the Old Faithful Visitor Center that delves into Yellowstone's geothermal mechanics become more, or less, popular, replaced by a digital program? Can a time-lapse video of a sunset or sunrise viewed on a 3-inch, or even 8-inch, screen compare with watching the real thing?

On the other hand, might learning about coral reefs spur visitors to snorkel at Virgin Islands, Biscayne, or Dry Tortugas national parks?

And if the gates are thrown fully open, how loud might the verbal clatter be on the apron of Old Faithful as hundreds of visitors wait for the geyser to gush? Will the waysides along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park become congregating points for folks anxious to let their friends back home know where they are?

And what about installing and paying for this service? Can the Park Service afford and provide the heightened bandwidth necessary to feed thousands of smartphones and tablets? Will this service be complemented by cellphone and computer charging stations akin to those sprouting in airport terminals?

Will this truly be a rewarding experience in terms of national park interpretation, or one frought with slow downloads and simply another moneymaker for companies ready to charge you for access to anything but the most basic Internet access? (Anyone who has flown in an airliner and tried to connect with Gogo inflight Internet knows those download frustrations.)

And who will be the gatekeeper who decides what content is allowed via the pay-to-play service level? Will businesses just outside a park's borders be given access, or only those within the borders?

Will you be kept awake by the person in the next room, or the next tent, chatting into the night or watching a movie? Will kids opt to stay in their rooms to watch movies rather than get out into the parks?

Will Canned Content Dull The Senses?

Does, in essence, feeding content to a park visitor through an app lessen their park experience by possibly discouraging them to use all their senses to truly experience a park, or will the content encourage them to get out into the park? If the latter is the case, do we really need expanded connectivity in the parks? Won't visitors do their homework on how to enjoy a park before they leave home?

There's no doubt that connectivity can aid an interpretive experience, such as when a ranger wants to show a bird, plant, or animal and does so virtually as opposed to taking a group out into the park when it might be raining or snowing. Or for visitors who for various reasons can't negotiate a park's trails or backcountry.

But in the end, will providing more connectivity in the parks be a good thing? Is there a strong philosophical argument to dissuade the Park Service from going down this road, the argument that parks are supposedly to help you get away from the hectic society that has evolved, to serve as a place where you can flee most distractions and recharge your own, internal, battery?

What do you think?

Comments

This is kind of a tough one because I see both sides. I never use my cell phone at all while out in the parks, but there would be some peace of mind for me to know that if I have some unforeseen accident, I could possibly call for help. And that is the only reason I wouldn't mind expanded wifi out in the parks. After reading all of the Cons, I figure I personally can do without it in the parks.

As a life long learner, I enjoy being able to do a google search on a plant or bird that i want to know more info about. As long as I am in cell coverage I can do this. I understand that this is not going to happen in every square mile of Yellowstone. But I am for expanded coverage as long as steps are made to make cell towers blend in with the enviroment so as to become less noticed. I fell the real problem in my eyes, is for the NPS to have a policy that would require towers to be camoflaged.

I remember last year how fortunate I felt to find free wifi in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park visitors centre. I was a tourist in the country with no data connection on my phone, so it felt nice to finally get some e-mails. So yes, wifi around the visitor centres really are greatly appreciated.

The use of wifi convinced me leave an extra $5 donation before heading on out to hike the Devil's Hall Trail.

I think providing opportunities for DIRECT (not virtual) experiences with nature, wildness, history, and culture is one of the main attributes of national parks. I long for the days of no connectivity in the parks. Is this another thinly disguised marketing ploy? Buy new stuff and more and more and more apps...

We at Friends of Acadia are working with Acadia National Park on this issue. It is too complex for in-depth discussion here, but in our 26-year relationship with Acadia, we’ve found that park officials here don’t make changes without very careful consideration for the pros and cons. Infrastructure does not get built without genuine concern for visual impact. And the main reason for wanting to expand wi-fi coverage in the park is to expand the possibilities for visitors—especially young people, some of whom are more comfortable with the digital world than the natural one—to learn more about the park resources they are encountering in a way that invites them to then turn off the smart phone and engage with the natural world.

Of course, Acadia is one of the more “built” National Parks, with cultural resources that rival our natural resources. And this exact same debate—whether human development would enable more people to experience Acadia’s wonders or would interfere with the natural experience here—took place when John D. Rockefeller Jr. was building Acadia’s carriage road system 80 years ago. Historically, it’s a debate that has tended to be settled in favor of enabling visitation. But—and this is important—never without caution, and, we hope, never without valuing and respecting the arguments of the other side of the debate, as well.

A last thought: when people picture how this is might be implemented, it's important to distinguish between localized wi-fi (which might be in an area surrounding a particular building or highly-visited area) and park-wide cell phone coverage. They are different technologies, with different uses and different pros and cons.

I have this horrible vision of Visitor Centers and Lodge Lobby's looking like Starbucks or McDonalds, with throngs of young and not so young internet-addicted park visitors using their laptops, tablet devices, and smart phones to check e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and text and instant messages. Few will actually look at park web sites and pod casts. None are looking up at the scenery. Can you imagine the throngs of park visitors checking IM's, e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook messages at roadside overlooks?

You can do the experiment in Yosemite. Free wifi exists at Curry Village (and on a password-protected basis for guests of the Ahwahnee Hotel). Of those using wifi in the park, how many are using it to access www.nps.gov or www.nationalparkstraveler.com. How many are using it to look at the fabulous Yosemite video "Nature Notes" on Youtube? How many are looking at Google Earth or www.usgs.gov?

Distractions in parks that permit a disconnect from a quality park experience are numerous and not limited to free wifi. In 2010, my family reserved suite at the Ahwahnee Hotel for several nights. The suite, located on the third floor of the hotel and facing south, offered breathtaking panorama picture window views of Half Dome, Glacier Point and Yosemite Falls from its parlor/sitting room. To my dismay, intruding on this glorious panorama, was a huge flat-screen color HD TV set, positioned on a countertop directly in front of the picture window. I found this to be totally blasphemous, but others certainly felt differently. They proceeded by the glorious golden light of late afternoon sun to turn the damned thing on to watch baseball. Geez, I might as well be accessing wifi in church!

Wi-Fi, and the associated towers will only hurt our experiences, as we will be behind people texting and stuff, getting in our way, and who needs that stuff anyway. when you go outside, you want to experience the outside. That other stuff is for cities, and if you need your phone and tablet, why not just go home and do that there. If you can't identify something, just remember what it looked like, or take a quick picture. I would rather my money for parks go to the parks rather than some Wi-Fi setup.

With some reservations I find myself leaning toward wifi expansion. Weather and fire alerts, emergency calls in and out, quality apps that apply to particular parks and events or activities...etc. I think these outweigh the potential annoyances. It really is how you use or don't use it.

I'll be interested to see and hear how the trial runs fare.

My husband, stepdaughter and I treated ourselves to supper at the Chisos Mountain Lodge on a recent Big Bend visit. Afterward we went out on the terrace to watch the sunset through the Window. At least a dozen people were in chairs. Every one of them had a tablet or laptop and was intent on it. As the sun got down and very colorful, they lifted their eyes and watched for maybe 10 minutes. Abruptly it dropped below the horizon, there was a collective "Ahh" and then every head went down and back to the screens!

I don't care if they want to miss all the beautiful stuff, that's their loss. What I cringe at the thought of is all these mopes yakking on their cell phones out on the trails. Like an airport waiting area with scenery!