There’s no place more peaceful and pure than a sliver of untouched earth, away from society and its modern luxuries, where city lights can’t interrupt the stars’ shine. I sometimes hike for miles and rest my head on cold, hard ground just to escape civilization and the stress that seeps into everyday life. Like many, disconnecting from the world brings me balance and solitude. Seeing “no service” on the screen of my cell phone makes me feel free.
In December, Mount Rainier National Park revealed that it would consider proposals from Verizon and T-Mobile to provide cell service in the 117-year-old park that has forever been known for its minimal-to-nonexistent reception, and most Rainier veterans prefer it that way. The announcement was made months after five congressional Democrats wrote an open letter to then President Obama urging him to allocate funds to establishing broadband in the national parks, and even as someone who is admittedly guilty of going “out of range” to avoid reading emails and answering calls, I say go for it, Rainier. Pave paradise and put up a cell phone tower.
As no surprise, many outdoors enthusiasts have expressed their outrage for the newfangled idea of Instagramming on park grounds, saying that digital detox is, in fact, the point of spending time in the wilderness. These opinions come from the mouths of experienced outdoorsmen and women who want to keep the land they know sacred and uncivilized. But the reality is this: it’s 2017 and some people may actually need cell service to survive in the wild.
Through the national parks system, the U.S. is able to make nature accessible for everyone. These lands have been historically preserved for the enjoyment of youths and elders alike, and while there’s an undeniable charm to being disconnected for a period of time, there are serious situations that can and do stem from being alone in the woods that could be avoided with a simple phone call.
Between 2007 and 2013, there were 1,025 deaths in America's 59 national parks, meaning that, on average, about 160 people die in the parks each year. Among the leading causes of death during this period were drowning, vehicle crashes, and falling—accidents that would have happened with or without a working cell phone in hand. But 86 people were killed by heat illness, cold exposure, avalanches, and nature in general, too. Could these deaths have been prevented by cell service? It’s hard to know for sure, but it likely could have helped their chances at rescue. (Case in point: Cell service may have saved our pal and snowboard journalist Brooke Geery when she recently got lost while riding on Mt. Hood, Oregon.)
In the face of this, the prominent argument that establishing connectivity in the parks will compromise their value, is a shallow stance. It’s easy to argue that parks should preserve tradition because, after all, that has been the argument all along. Urging them to instead take a step toward modern times, though, is all we ask. Now, allowing bellicose broadband corporations to invade their sacred grounds… that’s scandalous.
There is no nation-wide rule that dictates whether America’s national parks are allowed to invite wifi distributors in; rather, each park is able to make that decision independently, and we should trust them, as we always have, to vet those distributors properly and keep their disturbances to a minimum to prevent the Verizon guy (now the Sprint guy) from cruising into your campsite asking “can you hear me now?”
The digital age has undoubtedly damaged aspects of society, perhaps we can all agree on that, but along with the pitfalls of tech-obsession, there is also a world of opportunity. Thus, I stand with those five congressmen in favor of wifi, because this isn’t about Snapchat; this is about survival. Even the most serious of wilderness explorers have feared nature at times. Not everyone can escape those moments safely, or alive.
Those who haven’t visited national parks due to a connectivity issue in the past I'd argue aren’t likely to flood to the parks now. Admittedly, neighbors at the campsite chatting on the phone or distracted hikers might pose an annoyance, but that’s something we can overcome in order to save a few lives and help improve communications among park rangers and emergency responders, isn’t it?
Maybe we can all agree that wifi connectivity in the national parks isn’t the biggest issue for America and its natural treasures right now, seeing as the Trump administration is en route to withdrawing the U.S. from its commitment to being a leader in limiting climate change under the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, among other terrifying moves. Yes, let’s focus on saving the planet—obviously—but let’s also focus on saving people’s lives.
Disconnecting from the rest of the world can still easily be achieved via the airplane mode setting on a cell phone. Connecting to the rest of the world in a moment of necessity, however, has never been a choice until now.
Inability to connect should not be the only reason to disconnect. Despite whether Mount Rainier or any other national park allows telecommunications franchises to infiltrate, I will continue to live off the grid in those sacred spaces, and I urge my fellow wilderness junkies to do the same. Because while kooky tourists taking selfies at every turn in every trail may be the stuff of nightmares, knowing that if shit gets too hairy a real lifeline may soon exist is enough to help us all sleep a bit sounder next time we’re out under the stars.