Great-Smoky-Mountains-National-Park-campgroundA California parks advocacy group is calling for the Parks Department to ensure wireless internet access in all state parks. The Parks Forward report was presented to John Jarvis, the head of the National Park Service, last week.

For his part, Jarvis said the NPS is moving forward with making more Wi-Fi accessible in national parks.

“What we’re finding is that parks are social,” said Jon Christensen, Adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. “People are very social when they’re in parks, they do many of the things that they do in social media when they’re outside of parks.”

“There are ways in which this technology can actually deepen our connection to place and to parks,” said Christensen. “I think we need to see both sides of this and think about this in creative ways that it can connect people better to parks. That’s really better to building a constituency that will support state parks, regional parks and local parks in California.”

The reaction has been mixed. Some folks see the wildnerness as a respite from laptops and smartphones. Others say more people will visit parks if they can stay connected.

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    Great-Smoky-Mountains-National-Park-campgroundThe National Park Service (NPS) appears deeply committed to an industry-sponsored initiative which would change the way many visitors experience national parks, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Plans to significantly expand cellular and internet “connectivity” inside parks have advanced without public notice.

    The National Park Hospitality Association (NPHA), which represents concessionaires who operate lodges, stores and other commercial outlets inside national parks, is leading the effort to dramatically hike visitor access to cell and internet signals inside parks – signals from the concessionaires, that is. NPHA laments that “in many of America’s national parks, prized smartphones are little more than cameras because cell and data service, even at visitor centers and lodges and other developed sites, is poor – or worse.”

    The organization has the ear of Park Service leadership, which is working with NPHA to –

    • Provide internet access “at all major, developed visitor areas in the national park system” and “basic cell phone service at all major visitor areas in national park units, as well as along most roads and at major sites such as trailheads;”
    • “Deliver timely, park-focused information within national parks through smart phones, tablets and computers…to deliver interpretation and other important information to park visitors;” and
    • In order be “financially sustainable,” NPHA wants “the opportunity to develop and operate these systems” in which they charge fees for services beyond free “landing pages.” NPHA envisions a capacity “which could reduce the need for handing out printed materials and even facilitate fee collection through electronic devices.”

    NPS Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell has invited NPHA to nominate the first five parks to be wired, with the final “winners” selected sometime in January. NPS Director Jon Jarvis is reviewing an NPHA-drafted system-wide policy promoting connectivity and a joint “strategy session” is slated for February.

    “This would be a giant step toward ‘Disney-fying’ park interpretation, replacing rangers with corporate icons as your guides,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Solitude values of parks will go by the board, as lodges, tents, trailheads and other park locations become just another place to fiddle with electronic devices.”

    Editor’s Note:  Would you like to have better cellphone connectivity in National Parks? Would you be willing to pay an additional fee for the service?  Leave your comments below.

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