Wire the wilderness? As cell service expands, national parks become the latest digital battlegrounds

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 cell phones as they climb to the top. Similar scenes are playing out at other national parks as the call of the outdoors increasingly comes with crisp 4G service. 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.”

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.

Under National Park Service guidelines, such “special uses” are encouraged if they enhance park resources or improve public safety. But such uses should be rejected, the NPS says, if they “unreasonably disrupt the atmosphere of peace and tranquility of wilderness.”

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