Cell Phones in the Woods

Greenwire’s article today, “Will more cell towers fuel a ‘nature deficit’?” reminds me of my recent visit to the Mount St. Helens National Monument in Washington (managed by the Gifford Pinchot NF). At the Windy Ridge viewpoint, I walked to the end of the viewing deck with fewer people — just two. Turned out that both of them were talking on their cell phones; one of them was sheltering from the wind and drizzle under the roof over an interpretive kiosk, and the roof acted like a megaphone. I soon departed for other, quieter viewpoints and the USFS campground outside the monument, which had no cell service.

The article reports that National Parks are adding cell infrastructure.

And at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, in perhaps the biggest digital expansion of all, park officials ignited a controversy with their plan to install new towers at nine sites, along with 62 miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable, near the park’s main roads.

With no nationwide policy to guide them, officials at the National Park Service’s 419 sites are finding all sorts of ways to increase their digital connections, hoping to lure more younger visitors. Supporters say it boosts safety and interest in visiting parks.

But critics say it’s a big mistake and actually ensures that children will feel more disconnected from nature in the long run.

“People should have a right to a no-Wi-Fi zone — there should be places where we’re not in contact and reachable,” said Richard Louv, a California author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

Louv acknowledged that he appears to be on the losing end of the argument with park officials, but he said people should be taught “that connecting to other life is more important than collecting your email.”

I was somewhat encouraged by the family camping a few sites from mine. They apparently weren’t using any electronic devices — they spent most of their time fishing and hanging out by the fire, and the 3 kids spent a lot of time running around with their dog and playing in the woods. If there had been cell service, those folks might have been disconnected from nature much of the time.


11 thoughts on “Cell Phones in the Woods”

  1. Having read the article several issues standout to me are first the main complaint seems to related to social media and selfies, second nearly every anecdote was from the front country, and third the assumption that you need to go somewhere far away and dramatic to cure a nature deficit. This leads to the question of whether banning cell towers in National Parks is the solution to any of the concerns raised.

    To me it seems a little ridiculous to complain about people taking photos at scenic overlooks since that is their purpose. It also seems presumptuous to expect solitude at these same spots. The fact is, you don’t need an internet to take selfies on your phone, so it it debatable that limiting cell phone reception will stop people from doing stupid stuff to take selfies.

    As a culture we spend too much time on our phones, and getting our kids to put them down and play outside is good thing. The idea that our kids have a nature defect is also not that controversial. The big question is will creating internet free zones in National Parks solve that? Personally I think it is the wrong solution to the problem for several reasons. What we all need are places we can go close to home where can find a relatively quiet relatively natural place that we can frequent. For me that is a river near work that I can walk to and back and have a half hour with only minimal road noise, and where I can sit and watch the water flow by. If some one has a nature deficit a couple of hours a day while driving through national parks without cell phone service isn’t going to make a lasting impact of health. Will lack of towers encourage people to get out and walk in woods or will they still stick to the auto friendly highlights? How much quiet peaceful camping with a little fishing and rock skipping actually happens in National Parks compared to BLM or National Forests? The idea that we need to go wilderness to find solace also seems to reinforce the idea that nature is sometime remote and alien. It seems to me that if your concern is nature deficits the goal should be creating natural spaces in our cities and suburbs that would benefit far more people, not imposing internet free zones in National Parks for what we think is their own good.

    • excellent thoughts… just because people behave in ways that seem annoying to me is no reason to police that behavior. Yes, many NPs suffer from overcrowding, but if I complain about (numerous) other people in MY space, what am I doing there? Otherwise go early in the am or evening or off-season. If not possible, apply mental skills to enjoy the moment in spite of distractions.

  2. Mixed feelings on this issue. I am the first one to tire of people constantly looking at their phones. On other hand just spent a week backpacking in Shenandoah National Park, using both fairly obscure trails crossing various creeks& rivers and the Appalachian Trail for return. AT in the Park is quite civilized, mostly paralleling and frequently crossing the Blue Ridge Highway; and passing “waysides” (usually cafes & stores), resorts & many easy access points for dozens of day hikers (plus the 100-plus people we saw either doing thru-hikes or section hikes). But most the area is cell phone dead zone & I was bummed because could not contact my daughter in DC area whom I had promised to check in with. Not sure I want a Park Service cell tower disguised as a hardwood tree along the AT–but would have welcomed cell service on this trip. Only worked on 2 high points: Mary’s Rock & Stony Man. I have often wondered how much cell coverage is really a function of cell providers control. We were surprised when we lived a year in Cambodia to find unlimited international cell phone coverage everywhere and in location we tried.

  3. Lance, I agree with you that the best places for helping with nature deficit are local and safe. Many people don’t have the $ to take vacations to the National Parks. And once a year is too infrequent to resolve nature deficit.

    OTOH, people do really dumb things and it’s probably going to be helpful to call out for help, both for them and the emergency workers.

    Cindy, at one of our planning commission meetings, Verizon reps came in who wanted to use road rights of way for 5G towers. And yet, some parts of the county have 0G and lack cell service (you’ll see folks parked on the side of the road making calls before they get into a cell hole). So I don’t know how the companies decide.

    Maybe Wilderness areas should develop cell jamming equipment to ensure that cells don’t interfere with the Wilderness experience (just kidding ;)).

  4. Another thing to keep in mind that has not yet been raised is that NPS employees live in the area and have kids. The kids need good internet service to do their homework for school. Online homework is their reality. This was brought up at the annual Park Day in Cody WY in May by the Acting Super for Grand Teton and Super of YNP. Lack of service is a negative for prospective hires with school kids.

    • Are you saying that GTNP housing doesn’t have internet because there are no cell towers nearby? That doesn’t sound like it’s true.

      • I am reporting what the Superintendents said — that not having up-to-date internet connectivity, cell towers in GTNP & YNP was also a disincentive to attracting employees with school kids. Connectivity in YNP on cell is very sketchy, only in a limited area not sure re GTNP. Their other point is that connectivity is also important to the visitors. The Parks are responding by enhancing connectivity in a ways that don’t detract from the views. The larger question of forcing visitors to disconnect when in a Park by limiting cell towers does not appear to be a position that NPS is taking because that is not what the Park visitors are asking for. Just the opposite.

    • Rebecca Watson: “The kids need good internet service to do their homework for school. Online homework is their reality.”

      Well that certainly explains “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Milennials just don’t have a chance in our modern day Society.

  5. I agree with much of above comments…Interacting with nature close to home equally important. I hate to comment twice on issue but there’s an opposite”kids in the woods” aspect too. I recently interviewed a bunch of youth program leaders that take urban kids on outings for a Backpacker article on how to coax balky “tweens” into the outdoors. (Little kids are usually enthusiastic but middle-schoolers may find parent outings uncool). Cell phones were an item. Outward Bound doesn’t allow them on long trips but some youth experts said kids are so connected to technology, leaving the cell phone at home may be a “show stopper”; perhaps better to have the kid take it and take a lot of photos to post to Instagram–when there is cell service! We just hiked about 50 miles on Appalachian Trail last week and noticed about 70% of the younger thru-hikers had ear buds on. They were using their Iphones for music but they had them! (I want to ‘hear’ nature myself, but that is my issue. And of course the AT is outside wilderness)


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