Expanded Cell Service in National Parks: Good Idea or Bad Idea?
By Diane Rommel / June 12, 2017 9:00 am

“I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, the premier celebrant of nature in American letters.

For centuries, naturalists, survivalists, campers, hikers, backpackers, the lost, the willing and more have retreated into the woods to find beauty, peacefulness, solitude and, eventually, a way back to civilization: recharged, reanimated, recentered. Today, the wilderness — that which survives, anyway — remains one of the few places outside the grasp of modern technology, where an iPhone becomes an iPod, and only if you remembered to download your Spotify playlists. 

That’s been changing. To the point that concerned parties are now embroiled in a hot-button argument over the merits of a less-wild wilderness. At Washington State’s Mount Rainier National Park, a trio of cell phone conglomerates — Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T — have welcomed the delivery of an environmental assessment that could, in time, lead to the installation of a wireless antenna atop one of the park’s visitor’s centers. Though the antenna’s range would not extend to Mount Rainier’s peak, it would obviously boost cell-phone coverage within the park. 

Friends of the park are divided. According to the Guardian: “The park received 492 comments on the proposal during an earlier stage of the planning process, and received 249 in favor and 241 opposed.” Opponents cite the obvious, as well as their concerns that improved cell reception will encourage park guests to pursue riskier activities. Proponents cite enhanced safety capabilities in a park that conducts dozens of rescue operations a year. Cell phones can mean the difference between life and death. 

That’s neither hyperbole nor hypothesis. Skim the park’s post-accident reviews, and you’ll find harrowing tales of rescue and recovery made easier — or possible — by cell-phone coverage. It will also show multiple occasions when cell-phone coverage permitted climbers “to bail” earlier than they should have or when cell phones were meant (and failed) to do a job best left to a compass and a map: in one set of post-rescue remarks, “The team [in distress] commented [to park officials] that they wished they had slept on it ‘before calling for a rescue … cell phones make it all too easy to bail,’ [the team said].” 

Among those reports, though, you’ll also find stories of mountaineers who did everything right except for one bad step — and whose odds of survival were greatly enhanced by a functioning cell phone. This story doesn’t have a happy ending: when Peter Cooley fell while climbing the park’s Liberty Ridge, at nearly 12,000 feet, his partner, Scott Richards was able to quickly call for help. “At roughly 6:30 am Ranger Mike Gauthier advised Richards via cell phone to chop out a platform, secure their tent, and stabilize and prepare Cooley for a lengthy evacuation. Scheduled cell phone calls were arranged to conserve the team’s cell phone batteries.” Without a cell phone, that call isn’t made, and Richards is faced with the prospect of abandoning his friend (and soloing down the mountain) in order to seek help. Instead, park managers mobilized the Oregon National Guard and multiple teams of rangers, who ultimately arranged an evacuation by helicopter. Cooley later died at hospital, after several rescue attempts were foiled by poor weather. Having a cell phone, though, meant Richards could care for his friend and do what he could to make the rescue possible. A cell phone meant that Cooley had a chance. 

Talking on a cell phone sucks. Talking on a cell phone in a movie theater is terrible. Talking on a cell phone in a national park is the worst — but it’s not an offense punishable by death. It seems to us that if the technology exists, it should be made available to visitors. Yes: Some of them will be terrible. Some of them will use it to post to Instagram. Many of them will tweet inanities about whatever they watched on television the night before. But others will be people who didn’t expect to take the wrong step on a difficult mountain, and who might have a better chance of seeing their families again with that cell tower installed.

We’re not saying it has to be, you know, LTE. Surely someone in charge understands the technology well enough to provide climbers with what they need to reach park rangers while at the same time frustrating Instagram influencers teeing up their parks-themed photoshoot. If we can put a man on the moon — and a video camera in our phone — we can manage that.