Discover more from Slow Build by Nancy Scola
Wild & disconnected
Should America's national parks be off the grid?
In a dead zone for days, we’d missed the call from the park ranger: “There’s been some bear activity in the area and we’re trying to divert people.” And so it wasn’t until we got to the ranger station at Jenny Lake to pick up our backcountry permit that we were confronted with the choice. Would we move our first campsite because a black bear sow had gotten into another backpacker’s food supply, as recommended? At that point, the adrenaline was pumping. Our packs were on our backs. “Nope!” Off we went.
Slow Build — that is, me, Nancy Scola – spent last week in the woods of Wyoming, and was struck by something. Not only is there little cellphone coverage or WiFi in the backcountry of Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks, there’s little in the frontcountry, either, even around some of the parks’ most popular attractions. You can get a cocktail and watch Old Faithful go off, for example, but good luck getting online there.
Of course, there’s upsides. Getting away and offline for a week is, frankly, blissful. But it also means go getting bear alerts, no last-minute work emails, no weather reports and trail details, no making sure family’s okay.
As Americans, we often go offline when we go to our national parks. Should we? To dig in, I did a short Q&A with Dr. Brian Peterson, a research assistant professor at Kansas State University who specializes in park management and conservation, and who is the lead author on a paper on the lack of connectivity in a spot closer to home: Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Scola: How’d you come to study connectivity in national parks?
Peterson: There’s not a lot of information about the experiential impacts of using mobile devices in national parks. It’s kind of hard to study, sometimes, as we have to get our studies approved by the national parks, and they’re pretty tight on what we can and cannot ask. They keep it pretty tight to the scope of information that they need to solve a problem they’re having.
But there’s been this fun, philosophical debate over whether enhanced connectivity is going to boost or diminish the visitor experiences, and not a lot of research digging into it.
Coming back from Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, I was surprised how there’s little-to-no service even in the parks’ very populated parts. I wrestled with it. It’s nice to be offline for a week, but there’s also information it would have been nice to be able to get in real time.
Yeah, it’s a debate that’s almost binary. Does it boost the experience or diminish it? But there’s a variety of perceptions of a variety of people who all want different experiences.
I take a social-psychological approach to park management. With this publication, the way the survey was disseminated, it just simply put, ‘Hey, what’s your preference for WiFi? For cellular network service?’ Most of our responses were in the neutral zone, but we did have some findings that were quite interesting in terms of older demographics being more interested [in connectivity]. I would have hypothesized otherwise.
One of the things we posited was that maybe older demographics aren’t as locked into work and so they’re not thinking about [the benefits of] disconnection. Also, they’ve lived more years and might be thinking more about safety than younger demographics. I’d like to understand the reasons behind that.
What’s your understanding of why there’s so little connectivity in some parks?
These are rural areas, and they’re managed with the dual mandate grounded in the Organic Act, of conserving them and providing accessibility. But accessibly can mean a lot of things.
Cell towers do seem to be going up more regularly in recent years in national parks, and national parks do a pretty good job of doing environmental impact assessments. But there’s not much in the way of experiential impact assessments — whether people might want connectivity at Old Faithful or in the backcountry of Yosemite.
I personally go back and forth on this. I like to go off-trail and do my own thing, but I bring a satellite messenger with me. My last trip to Yosemite, on one of the nights, clouds started to roll in. I was up high in an exposed location, well above 10,000 feet. So I used technology to text family, to say, ‘Hey, what’s the radar looking like?’ A few minutes later, I got back, ‘You’re going to be fine.’ But satellite testers are expensive.
It seems like there’s research that could be done on whether people have a preference for connectivity depending not just on being in a national park or not, but where they are in a particular park.
I usually bring a big GIS emphasis to my research, and I’d be interested in understanding the spatial parameters that people think of when they want connectivity.
One thing I think is going on is that people are going further and deeper into the backcountry because they’re essentially able to follow a digital trail on our GPS devices or even cell phones. People are downloading GPS tracks off the Internet, like, ‘Okay, this is a cool loop that I’m going to do our in Grand Teton National Park,’ and so off-trail routes are turning into on-trail routes. It’d be really interesting to research the adventure component associated with connectivity.
I think it could actually disperse visitors more. One of the sometimes frustrating things is that national parks are really, really popular. They’re major tourist attractions. So people are like, ‘Gosh, I was trying to get away from city life, and now there’s a wait.’ So does it give visitors the ability to say, ‘This attraction is on-trail, but if I hike two miles off-trail, I’ll get a similar experience. So I’m going to go for it, thanks to my phone.’
Another thing I’m curious about is how the use of technology temporally changes for parks that really have a different type of setting in wintertime — when people are going cross-country skiing or snowshoeing — and summertime.
So there’s a variety of experiences with connectivity that could be beneficial for different people in different places…
There could be the argument that, ‘Hey, if you don’t want connectivity, turn your phone off,’ so let’s have connectivity over the entirety of the park. You’re a human being and you make decisions for yourself. That’s your responsibility, and if you want a disconnected experience, then turn off your cellphone.
Do we have the willpower to do that, though? I have to say, it was kind of nice to say to editors, ‘I literally cannot be in touch with you.’
I love saying that, too. I honestly do.