Wednesday, July 06, 2016

National Parks: Instagram nirvana or digital detox?

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- In 1891, a search party found the body of Robert Hamilton floating in the Snake River and lit a fire atop Signal Mountain to alert others in Jackson Hole.

Today, the mountaintop is sending out new signals -- cellphone service -- across the sage- and pine-covered valley. A 50-foot-tall cell tower stands sentinel over the Signal Mountain picnic area and overlook, keeping visitors connected as they gaze at the snow-covered Teton Range and Grand Teton National Park's pronghorns, elk and grizzlies.

Whether to expand beyond Grand Teton's sole cell tower, operated by Union Telephone Co., is part of a major debate within the National Park Service over the promise and peril of allowing technology in America's most hallowed landscapes.

AT&T has submitted a plan to build a high-speed fiber-optic cable "backbone" along the 21-mile Teton Park Road, a scenic route cutting through the heart of the park's front country, and continuing an additional 28 miles to the southern border of Yellowstone National Park.

It would lay the foundation for high-speed wireless connections at scenic gems like Jenny Lake and its primitive, tent-only campground, allowing visitors to Skype friends from the lake's shores or watch Netflix from their tents. It would be a major upgrade from the park's existing cell service -- spotty and slow.

"We recognize there's a balance to be struck between that connectivity and preserving a wilderness experience in the backcountry," said Grand Teton spokesman Andrew White. "Visitors have a certain level of expectation for connectivity. When they get back to camp, they expect to be able to post that picture on Instagram."

Without an agencywide policy, cell service decisions are made case by case. The Grand Teton plan would need to undergo a National Environmental Policy Act review -- paid for by AT&T -- before receiving approval, White said.

The Park Service is pushing to enhance cell and internet connectivity at hundreds of sites across the country, hoping to cater to younger visitors and an increasingly wired society.

The dilemma cuts to the core of NPS's founding mission written by Congress nearly 100 years ago: Keep parks unimpaired while allowing visitors to enjoy them.

As the agency enters its second century, park advocates worry that new visitors -- particularly young ones -- won't enjoy the parks without digital connectivity to their friends, family or work.

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