Originally created 04/15/04

Camping, hiking and cell phone service available at national parks



When Sean Morrissey scaled California's 14,491-foot Mount Whitney for the first time a few years ago, he couldn't wait to take in the view. A woman who made the climb at the same time couldn't wait to dial her cell phone.

"This one woman was making call after call," said Morrissey, who is from Los Gatos, Calif. "It seemed very out of place. It seemed out of place to go through all that effort to make an outbound call."

Cell phones have long been virtually unavoidable on city streets and in shopping malls. But they now are showing up in some of the very places people go to get away from it all: national parks.

For park managers, this is a challenge. Officials with the National Park Service say they want to meet the needs of visitors and provide for their safety. But they also must protect the park and the visitor experience. And there is no set policy on how to strike this balance.

To some degree, the Park Service is complicit in the problem: At least 15 National Park Service sites have allowed telecommunications companies to put up cell towers within their boundaries. Yellowstone has five. (Also, many towers are situated just outside national parks, enabling park visitors to place calls even from some backcountry areas.)

Some conservationists complain that cell phone technology is ruining nature - not only by scarring the landscape with cell towers (one tower in particular, near Yellowstone's Old Faithful, has been criticized as an eyesore), but also by contributing to the death of solitude.

"It's possible you could come to a trail in Yellowstone and see someone yakking on the phone to their stockbroker," said Dennis McKinney, development director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Jeffrey Hunter was jolted from his sleep at 6 a.m. by a fellow hiker who used his phone while at a shelter in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to remind his wife to bring sodas when she met him later.

"He woke everybody up in the entire shelter," said Hunter, of Chattanooga, Tenn., who was hiking the Appalachian Trail. "I was incredulous that someone would wake people up for a couple Diet Cokes."

And guide Neil Courtis recalled a private tour he led in Yellowstone National Park last fall that included a business-minded father from New York who was desperately trying to get a cell phone signal so that he could make calls or check his messages.

"When you're trying to give a tour, that's kind of annoying," Courtis said. "It kind of ruined the tour" for the others.

Lane Baker, Yellowstone's deputy chief ranger, said many people expect to be able to use cell phones and that Park Service officials cannot dictate how tourists use them.

"You can't control what they do at Old Faithful like you can't control what they do in downtown New York," she said.

And Baker said cell phones in the park have a definite positive side, making a difference in the way officials receive and respond to emergency calls. "I wouldn't want to do my job without one," Baker said.

Last July, a desperate cell phone call from 13,000 feet on the Grand Teton in Wyoming alerted rescuers that lightning had struck a party of 13 climbers near the summit.

Rangers flew in by helicopter and were able to pluck the most badly injured from the mountain before dark. One climber was killed by the lightning; the others survived.

But on the other side of the equation, Yosemite spokesman Deb Schweizer said the park also has gotten calls from hikers who are simply pooped and want a lift out. They get a polite refusal.

"Just because you're tired doesn't mean we're going to send someone out," she said.