Back in 2004, Cingular Wireless was forced to scrap plans to put up three cell phone towers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Public outcry, as well as pressure from politicians and conservation groups ultimately forced the company to drop its plans.
The park dodged a technological bullet.
While the Smokies currently has no cell towers, the presence of wireless communications is increasing on national parks and forest lands nationwide. Currently, there are 16 national parks that have cell towers, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Tetons, Grand Canyon and Mammoth Cave.
Several days ago, Yellowstone National Park announced the release of a draft plan for guiding the development of wireless communication within the park, including a limited increase in cell phone coverage. Two-thirds of Yellowstone is already covered by cell phone towers.
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) says the plan is significant because it's likely to set a precedent for other national parks.
If the NPCA is correct in their assessment, the issue becomes even more important when you take into consideration that managers of public lands are required to take cell tower proposals into consideration under the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Although not imminent, the threat of cell towers in the Smoky Mountains continues to exist.
There are two issues here that concern me most. One is the sight of cell towers dotting the horizon when I look out from a mountain top or ridgeline.
Secondly, I really don’t want to hear people yapping on their phones while I’m enjoying the wilderness. How annoying would it be to have someone following you on a trail while they yak with a friend on their phone? It’s not to hard to imagine relaxing at Charlie’s Bunion or Rocky Top and, while soaking in the views, have some hiker stroll up and yell into their phone “Hey dude, guess where I am right now? The view here is totally awesome! Let me send you a photo of it. Catch you later."
Of course the chief argument for allowing cell phone coverage in wilderness areas is that it offers a degree of protection in an emergency situation; help is now only a phone call away.
Yes, that is true. However, you could make the argument that carrying a cell phone instills a false sense of confidence in people who don't necessarily have all the skills needed to be in the backcountry. Furthermore, are we as modern human beings to be protected from every conceivable threat?
Venturing out into the wilderness carries certain risks which need to be accepted or one needs to stay closer to civilization. One of the purposes of wilderness is to provide a connection with the past, which is essentially lost when modern technology is present. Certain skills need to be honed if one is to have a true wilderness experience.
I suppose that might sound like a bit of a purist's point of view. I suppose that if someday I were to find myself with a broken leg in the backcountry miles from nowhere I might wish I had a cell phone. Maybe I’m old-fashion in believing that you should tell somebody where you’re going and when you’ll be back, not hiking alone, staying on the trail, and carrying certain emergency gear.
What’s your opinion? Should the Smoky Mountains, or, for that matter, all national parks have cell phone coverage? Do the safety benefits outweigh the concerns?
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