Guest Opinion: Yellowstone cell tower reignites debate over phones in the backcountry

A simulated image from a National Park Service planning document shows what the new cell phone tower (left of center above trees) near the Lake/Fishing Bridge complex will look like. (National Park Service image — click to enlarge)
By Krista Langlois for High Country News
Originally published August 5, 2013
Reprinted with permission from High Country News. Not for republication by Wyoming media.
Krista Langlois

I’m probably too young to be a good curmudgeon, but I nonetheless subscribe to Ed Abbey’s view of wilderness: it doesn’t need to be safe and accessible for everybody. Put ramps and roads and signs and cell phones into our cities, but please, leave them out of the backcountry. Sure they make it safer, but the element of risk is part of what defines the outdoors, and part of what draws me to it.

A map shows the location of a recently approved cell tower for the Lake/Fishing Bridge Area. The antennae will be positioned to minimize spillover into backcountry areas, according to planning documents. (National Park Service Image — click to enlarge)

Judging from recent developments in Yellowstone, I may be in the minority. On July 23, the National Park Service approved its sixth cell phone tower for Yellowstone National Park, adding to dozens of towers already sticking out of other national parks around the country. The new 100-foot Verizon Wireless tower will mostly improve cell phone coverage in developed areas of Yellowstone, but may also include some “spillover” into the backcountry.

Public affairs officer Al Nash said that the park is simply giving people the basic services they expect. “Overwhelmingly what we hear from visitors is they are surprised that cell service is so limited and so spotty,” he said. “Their personal experience where they live is that cell service is ubiquitous.”

Visitors to Yellowstone’s Facebook page weren’t quite as consistent in their support, with most comments (to put it mildly) leaning toward “dislike.”

The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits motors and even bicycles within designated wilderness boundaries, but says nothing on the subject of technology. Tech proponents argue that cell phones offer safety and convenience, while wilderness purists say that they’re an annoying distraction. Plus, they say, the belief that you can phone your way out of a hairy situation creates an illusion of safety, enticing people without wilderness skills to use technology as a substitute for training and experience. Tales abound of inexperienced people wandering the backcountry with cell phones, making unnecessary calls to search and rescue that can put volunteers in danger, or at the very least, waste their time and money.

It seems the wilderness elitists are losing. There are now Instagram photos taken from the summit of Everest and apps developed by wilderness medicine organizations to record vital signs that can then be transmitted to search and rescue. One mountain biker wrote recently that many adventure sports enthusiasts she knows use their phones to check the weather and avoid unfavorable conditions, but by never getting rained on, they also distance themselves from a real connection with nature.

While those examples may seem trite, the July deaths of three hikers in the wilderness area on the Arizona-Utah border known as the Wave are not. The trio of deaths (including a 27-year-old mother of two, whose husband hiked to cell phone range to call for help after she collapsed)  has prompted the Bureau of Land Management to consider increasing safety in the area through better cell phone coverage — which, along with the Yellowstone announcement, has prompted a re-hashing of the cell-phones-vs-wilderness debate.

A mountain biker sends a few texts in Canyonlands National Park. (NPS Photo by Neal Herbert — click to enlarge)

HCN has published its share of anti-cell phone rants over the years. The most moving arguments, though, aren’t the pleas to turn off your phone and experience sweet, glorious nature, but rather heartbreaking stories like the one about the Wave. One particularly poignant letter to the editor asks readers to imagine themselves for a moment alone in the wilderness with a victim of an accident. Would you wish for a cell phone then, to call for help? When editor Jodi Peterson heard a voice in Mesa Verde National Park that may have belonged to a missing hiker this summer, might cell phone service have helped save the man’s life?

These are hard questions, especially for self-described wilderness snobs like myself. Of course, I don’t want to watch someone die because of a lack of cell phone service. I don’t want to oppose something that could save someone’s life, or my own.

But ultimately, though the argument against improved cell phone coverage in the wilderness can come across as selfish, trite or nostalgic, it stems from a deep love of nature, from wanting to preserve something that’s meaningful and powerful and hard to articulate. Maybe it’s inevitable that communication networks will one day permeate every canyon and mountaintop, but as long as I’m alive, I hope that no matter the risk, I will more often feel the sting of campfire smoke in my eyes than the strain of squinting at a screen. I hope there will always be places where you cannot check your phone to look up how to start a fire in the rain but rather must crouch on a wet, rocky beach, trying to ignite a handful of tinder while gray sky closes in and seagulls reel through the fog and the rest of the world seems far, far away.

— Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News and carries a SPOT messenger when she ventures into the backcountry.

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  1. Interesting the tower is placed near the administrative and employee housing compound. So who is this going to benefit?? Personally I don’t have a dog in this fight..From the photo it seems the NPS is trying to cover up the true intended users of this tower.

  2. Them that do not want phone service in a national park ” wilderness” setting must also not want paved highways or indoor plumbing , either. Is that a safe assumption ?

    Funny how we never hear anyone complain about Yellowstone’s high line electrical towers , long daisy chained phone poles , ad hoc networks of service roads, carcass dumps, detached sewage plants, even the cloistered employee housing dorms kept just out of sight from the main concourses.

    So the real choice is between having a few cell towers or absolutely no phone in Yellowstone whatsoever. Wouldn’t it be nice if Yellowstone Park could charge the same rate for voice and data over ” its” cell network , like $ 3.00 a minute same as satellite phones, and the proceeds going into the infrastructure maintenance and upgrade account. That way , the travellers would only use it when they absolutely had to, or pay for their Park’s future voluntarily. Never mind that cell towers can be camouflaged these days. Who would complain about a 100-foot tall Douglas Fir replica with some slightly weird branches at the top ?

    The wilderness elitists and backcountry purists, that’s who. Them that flew to Wyoming on a kerosene-burning jet , rented a gas -burning car, and parked it at a trail head to take that ” pristine” hike.

    Yellowstone has been an outdoor monument to hypocrisy since the day it declared ” preserved”. Like back when there was rampant poaching and even market hunting inside the Park; steamboat excursions ; biological Frankentrout hybridized at Lake Hatchery ; all manner of encroachments of steampunk and American motorculture. You want to limit snowmobiles in winter but do nothing about 40,000 Harley Davidsons, 50,000 diesel belching tourbuses, and a million automobiles and RV’s in the summer ?

    Get over it. The cell tower will save lives, because there is no cure for Stupid, and the hypocrisy is not going away , either.