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IPFS News Link • National Monuments/National Parks

As Cell Service Expands, National Parks Become Digital Battlegrounds

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Mount Rainier and other national parks are weighing plans to expand cellular coverage in once remote areas. First responders support the plans, as do some park officials, who argue that better cell coverage will help attract a new generation of visitors. Critics fear it will lead to more noisy distractions in places designed to be an escape from the modern world.

(TNS) — WASHINGTON — When John Muir helped establish the National Park Service, he argued that such parks were vital to help people unplug from the world. "Break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods," Muir was quoted as saying in 1915.

But these days at Yosemite National Park, hikers to Half Dome are likely to encounter people talking on cellphones as they climb to the top. For visitors to the parks, the call of the outdoors increasingly comes with crisp 4G service, and not everyone is wild about that.

In Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rainier and other iconic parks, environmentalists are pressing the National Park Service to slow or halt construction of new cellular towers within park boundaries. They say the NPS is quietly facilitating a digital transformation with little public input or regard to its mission statement — to preserve "unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System."

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Richard Louv, author of several books on connecting young people with the outdoors, said the parks are losing what once made them unique.

"Can you imagine hiking in Yosemite far from other people, and then suddenly it sounds like you are in McDonald's, with everyone on their phones?" said Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods" and other books. "That is not why most people go to our national parks."

Yet advocates for increased cell service, including many NPS officials, say the parks can't cling to an earlier era. Expanded cellular and broadband coverage, they argue, helps rescue teams respond to emergencies and are necessary to draw a new generation to the parks.

"Visitors want to be able to use their mobile devices to share experiences with their friends and family," said Lena McDowall, an NPS deputy director, in testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in September. "They want to take advantage of the many internet-based resources we have developed."

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