Cell towers in Yellowstone?

Park visitors want apps as well as nature

By The Mercury

National parks don’t jump to the top of many priority lists in February; what talk there is about them seems to focus on lingering controversies involving snowmobiles, pollution and wolves.

And though there are plenty of uncertainties — starting with funding cuts — for folks planning to visit some of America’s truly great parks, midwinter isn’t too soon to make plans and even reservations.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the budget cuts associated with the sequester take place, park visitors will likely pay a little more than they did last year, endure more inconveniences than they did last year, enjoy fewer Ranger talks and guided tours and perhaps even have access to fewer areas of the parks. Those are among responses National Park Service administrators fear will be necessary to cope with 5-percent budget cuts.

Although such funding cuts would be unfortunate, their impact also would pale in significance to cuts affecting military personnel and programs as well as social programs for America’s vulnerable citizens, all of which also would be included in the tens of billions of dollars of spending cuts to come.

Nature and our national parks have proved resilient, and the latter remain among the best —and most affordable — travel destinations for Americans. That’s true of the great showcase parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier — and it’s true of the dozens of lesser known parks, national monuments and other facilities, including the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Cottonwood Falls.

The most recent topic associated with the big parks has less to do with money than it does with technology. Not surprisingly, it pits folks who view the national parks as a respite from modern life and a chance to commune with nature with those who can’t imaging going anywhere — including the middle of nowhere — without their cell phone or electronic tablet.

While it would be a mistake to erect cellular towers in many backcountry areas of the parks, allowing them in developed areas — at visitor centers and lodges for example — makes sense. Folks who insist on universal access might be wise to vacation elsewhere; the national parks aren’t theme parks. Yet technology can enhance visitors’ experiences; ear buds and apps downloaded to smart phones can help visitors better understand what they’re seeing. Enhanced communications also can improve safety for park visitors.

To its credit, the National Park Service has proposed a pilot project involving enhanced digital coverage at five parks. Striking a balance that meets the needs of visitors who are plugged into nature and those who are plugged into various devices will be difficult but not unsurmountable.

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