Is ‘wired’ wilderness still wild?

A great place to check email? Actually, the ... Photo: Jiri Eischmann via Wikimedia Commons

A great place to check email? Actually, Parks Canada says wireless zones would be “restricted to visitor centres and campgrounds.” Photo: Jiri Eischmann via Wikimedia Commons

Campers, hikers, nature lovers: do you go to wild places to get away from modernity? Or do you see value in “having it all?”

Here’s why I’m asking. According to the Montréal Gazette (4/29) and other media across Canada:

Parks Canada has revealed plans to offer Wi-Fi service at its national parks and national historic sites.

In a tender posted Monday, the agency says it expects to have between 25 and 50 hot spots at key national parks and historic sites this year. That will grow to 100 hot spots in even more locations over the next couple of years.

Not surprisingly, what counts as good news to some sounds like wrong-headed blasphemy to others. As reported by CTV (4/29) Parks Canada found itself responding to negative comments right away:

…Andrew Campbell, director of visitor experience with Parks Canada, says the wireless zones would be restricted to visitor centres and campgrounds — “not in the wilderness, and not in the back country,” he told CTV’s Power Play.

“What we’re trying to do is have it around the spots where people can write a digital postcard home, where they could in the morning pick up and take their digital subscription and read the newspaper when they’re around the campground,” he said…Those sorts of things are what people have been asking us for, and so we’re trying to provide that to our visitors,” he added.

One of Canada’s best-known nature writers, Farley Mowat, heaped scorn on the proposal, shortly before he died last Tuesday at age 92. The National Post obituary for Mowat says he called the proposal “a disastrous, quite stupid, idiotic concept, and should be eliminated immediately”

Another writer, Celine Cooper, explored the pros and cons in this essay, including the interesting question “What does wilderness even mean in our wired 21st century?”

Let me say right off the bat that the idea of accessing electronic devices in the woods seems antithetical to me. This is partly because I grew up camping and hiking in the north; I am deeply comfortable with the experience of being disconnected from the grid. But the other reason is because I research and write for a living. What this means (in 140 characters or less) is that I spend many, many (too many) hours every day sitting in front of computer and smartphone screens. My online world is — first and foremost — a stressful one. I would not choose to import the anxiety of all those unanswered emails or my bottomless Twitter feed into the very place I might go to escape from it all.

But experience has taught me not to go sneering too loudly at technology or claiming that authenticity can only be found in the quote-unquote “real world.”

Those with enough self-discipline can, of course, welcome or ignore the siren call of a WiFi hot spot. And most park users are happy to have things like electricity, potable water, phones and flush toilets at visitor centers. What’s adding some hot spots on top of those other amenities?

But those who prefer purity would end up having more interaction with WiFi addicts, once that option is added to selected locations. Tech users would very likely ask for more and more WiFi and cell coverage. Viewed that way, the proposal touches on a larger clientele and atmosphere issue: do the purists get to keep nature pure, or must they continually surrender ground to the encroachment of all things human?

Indeed, the topic hits a nerve with defenders of what I will sloppily call “natural wilderness”, as evidenced by a far-away response from Australia.

What do you think? A good idea and it’s about time?

A terrible proposal?

Or just another aspect of the march of progress?

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23 Comments on “Is ‘wired’ wilderness still wild?”

  1. Hank says:

    I have no problem with this so long as it is restricted to campgrounds and visitor centres; after all, one can already turn on a radio (or TV) in those locations and in many cases connect to cell towers. I don’t consider campgrounds to be “wild” areas or wilderness – not by a long shot. It’s in the back country of our national parks (and large provincial parks) where wilderness exists and where this technology would truly be an intrusion.

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    People who are that fanatic about a wilderness experience should stay out of the wilderness because they are ruining the experience for the wildlife.

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  3. The Original Larry says:

    If you believe, as apparently Farley Mowat did, that protecting nature means keeping people as far away from it as possible, then this proposal is a bad idea. If, on the other hand, you believe that people are a part of nature, then it’s a great idea. If you crave an authentic wilderness experience, leave your electronic devices at home and hope that the authentic wilderness experience doesn’t involve any emergencies that might be mitigated by electronic communications.

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  4. Will Doolittle says:

    What the opponents like Mowat want is to restrict the experience for other people, not themselves. Because hard-core nature-only folks like Mowat wouldn’t take their wireless toys (if they even own them) into the wilderness, one assumes. So what they object to is what someone else is doing. Why? What business is it of theirs? You say even those not using wireless devices will have more contact with those using them. Really? How crowded is it back there in the wilderness? And if you hear someone talking on a cell phone how is that different from hearing someone talking to a friend they’re walking with? And if you see someone sitting on a log checking their email how does that hurt you?

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  5. Lucy Martin says:

    An interesting subtext of this topic is that of target audience, so to speak.

    Are parks for what I’ll call nature-oriented nature lovers? Are they a get-away destination for urbanites? Of course they serve both users groups now. But programs, policies and services will be vastly different depending on how that question gets answered. Exhibit A might be places like Yellowstone, which are being loved to death in some pretty unnatural ways. (In which Ken Hall and I can gripe about “too many people on this planet”!)

    The same “who are we serving?” question comes up in all sorts of places, including libraries, public boradcasting and the heritage/museum community.

    If attracting numbers or gate revenue is the be-all-end-all goal, the content has to be watered down, made sexy (in terms of the latest wants) to possibly be more attractive to people — who don’t care deeply about the core product in the first place. (And I would italicize those last few words for emphasis if I knew how).

    I can see both sides. All tax payers paid for those resources, they should not be the special playground of a select few. It’s arguably fair and just to meet the needs of the general population. But what if that ends up diluting the original goal of a library, or the preservation goal of special wilderness areas?

    I don’t think a little WiFi in the park greeting centers is going to change much. Shoot, I’d probably use it myself, with gratitude.

    I do wonder/worry about losing sight of the core mission by making parks too much like little cities and diverting limited resources toward that end.

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  6. Will Doolittle says:

    You’re mixing in stuff in a way that is unfair, implying that people who use wireless devices in the wilderness care less about the “core product” (a weird way to refer to wilderness) than those who don’t. I don’t think there is any evidence for that view, nor does it seem to me a fair assumption. If anything, the difference will be generational. The younger the person, the more likely they will use wireless devices wherever they are. You are attaching value judgments (“watered down,” “made more sexy”) to differences in policies, when one is not necessarily better, in the way you imply, than another. Is it better to have a library that has more public computers, or worse? I would say it is neither better nor worse, but different. And further, some see it as better, some worse. Some might see it as “watering down” the library’s mission of promoting the printed word; others as promoting the library’s mission of access to public information.
    Of course, there is a value to limiting the number of people in the wilderness, because of littering, noise, damage to natural resources, and so on. The value of wilderness is lost if it becomes as packed as Disneyworld. But the number of visitors to places like Yellowstone can be limited, separate from any policies about wireless access.

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  7. DM says:

    I worked in Alaska with a guy who was a avid hunter, and outdoorsman.

    He was on an elk hunt with his son (around 17-18). His son shot an elk, and walked about a half mile from where he was sitting, to where the elk fell. He watched through a spotting scope, when his son got to the elk, turned and waved, hooting and hollering. He continued to watch as his son, slip, and fell down a ravine.

    He got to him, to find him unconscious, and seriously injured. He had to make the unimaginable decision to leave his son laying there, and hike 12 hours out to call for help…

    Before you say “having cell service in the wilderness ruins my experience”, maybe think about if you actually needed it, then shut your phone off and stick it in your bag “just in case”.

    “If a cell service exists in the forest, and you don’t have a phone with you, does it really make a signal”?

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  8. Pete Klein says:

    I don’t see a problem with the idea as presented. Couldn’t care less. But…
    On a personal level, I don’t care because I refuse to be “connected” when I am not at home. I don’t have a cell phone, don’t want one and have no desire to accidentally provide information to government authorities on my whereabouts under any circumstances.

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  9. I agree with Hank. This is fine so long as it’s limited to campgrounds and other areas already built up. To beam out wi-fi to every nook and cranny of wilderness sounds like a tremendous waste of money for no real benefit.

    You could make an argument for cell phone coverage for safety reasons but no wifi means you can’t check Facebook. Not a valid expenditure, IMO.

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  10. Lucy Martin says:

    Will: you’re right, I am showing some generational bias. Most younger people use technology, end of story. Many of them love nature as much as anyone else.

    I’m fine with computers in public libraries, BTW. As long as they still have books on the shelves too. Because you’re right, the essential mission there is providing information and unfettered access to it.

    I’ve seen some pretty sad things in history museums that do a real disservice to the subject because they felt compelled to water down content or try avoid offending anyone. (I imagine something similar happens in science displays too due to ever-dropping levels of technical literacy.) When that happens, I fear no one ends up being well-served.

    But this post is supposedly about nature and wilderness. While it’s true the noise level of someone talking on a cell phone is the same as chatting with a companion, I much prefer the second encounter out on the trail. (Something about “being here now.”) Others may feel differently.

    In the case of accidents, who doesn’t want the ability to call 911 right away? (I hope the son of DM’s friend survived.) Except that I don’t think all of the wilderness will get cell coverage, if only because the cost-benefit ratio seems unworkable at present, the point Brian made above.

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  11. DM says:

    (HE did… long long road to recovery though. He was still living in a hospital nearly a year later when i left AK to return to NY)

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  12. mervel says:

    I think Yellowstone is a good example.

    If you don’t want to drive and don’t want to be around people or have access to reliable cell service etc, MOST of Yellowstone offers that, you just have to be willing to pack it in and get out there. However if you want to do the tourist things, want to go look at old faithful, stay in well managed camp grounds with all of the access etc and amenities that is also available.

    I think we risk losing a generation of individuals who will have no appreciation for anything in the wild if we always insist on some sort of strict ethos when it comes to modern amenities. Personally I don’t like that sort of thing, I prefer to backpack into places where you see very few people and it is relatively hard to get to, but not everyone wants to do that or can do that.

    But there is value in having people love the wilderness even if they can’t get out in it totally, we need people in urban centers to appreciate the wild, they will be the ones making the decisions about protecting it, not us there are not enough of us.

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  13. Pete Klein says:

    As an aside, I heard a story on the radio today about the young reading less and less for pleasure. I guess reading has become less FUNdamental and is being replaced by Texting which is more FUNdamental?

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  14. Hank says:

    I agree with Mervel’s points. In Canada at least (I don’t know about the US) far too many of the people visiting and using our national and provincial parks are in their older years; the next generation does not seem to be nearly as interested in experiencing “wilderness values”. This is certainly true in the larger wilderness canoeing parks in northwestern Ontario that my wife and I frequent. Park managers are clearly concerned about how these large parks will maintain themselves financially once us older types no longer can make our visits – and who will continue to fight for the very existence of these places.

    So providing wi-fi at the edges (campgrounds and visitor centres) seems to me to be a fairly easy and painless way to hopefully entice more of the younger generation to make those visits. And maybe some of those younger visitors will then consider the possibility of venturing further into the back country at some future point in their lives and of ensuring that the park’s legacies live on.

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  15. Hank: my experiences hiking in the Adirondacks has had me cross a pretty good number of hikers of all generations. I happen to coach high school soccer in an Adirondacks town and my players who *don’t* hike to some extent are probably in the minority.

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  16. The Original Larry says:

    This is not an airport or a bus terminal or a railroad we’re talking about. I just don’t understand the antipathy towards something one can easily choose to ignore.

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  17. Two Cents says:

    is not having cell service the thing keeping people out of the wilderness? if there was cell service would that be the deciding factor that was missing for taking a hike?
    it could be nice to google a plant, bird or mushroom spotted on the trail.

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  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’ve hiked around plenty of places from the Adirondacks to Yellowstone and Glacier, to Alaska. My experience is that once you get more than 2 miles from a road you will be alone for all practical purposes and you won’t see a cigarette butt or gum wrapper. In the US national parks with large visitor volume there is usually a system of permits limiting campers and you can generally hike all day and see hardly anyone until you reach a designated camping area. I don’t carry a cell phone for emergencies. My personal ethos is that the purpose in going to a wilderness is to experience wilderness and part of that is the risk of death. Other people feel differently and their use of electro magnetic waves does not diminish my experience in any way. There will come a time not far into the future where some variety of electronic media will be available everywhere; get over it. If you don’t like it you don’t have to use it.

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  19. Hank says:

    Brian (MOFYC not NCPR):

    That’s good to hear that you’ve got hikers of all generations. Perhaps hiking outings attract a wider demographic than back country canoe outings (which is my primary form of wilderness experience).

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  20. OL: Given that state and national parks are run by public agencies, maybe some of the antipathy is the belief that it’s not an appropriate use (not part of their mission) of limited resources by a taxpayer funded agency.

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  21. Mervel says:

    Well yes Brian I know young people here often hike that is not the demographic we were talking about. Population wise we are not significant, no truly rural areas are, if we are going to protect wild lands we will need the support of urban communities which is where the vast majority of people in the US live.

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  22. Mervel says:

    Now I will say I would have a major problem if there were large disruptions of wild areas needed to achieve cell service. It looks pretty unobtrusive though?

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  23. Pat Nelson says:

    I agree with the “You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to” side, with one caveat that applies to radios, TV’s and raucous family gatherings as well as WiFi and cell phone — keep the volume down.

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