Don’t feed the bears, or Wi-fi companies

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Monday:

Oh give me a phone, where the buffalo roam. Actually, don’t. Please.

The National Park Service is under mounting pressure to allow wireless coverage in the peaceful unplugged spaces where the deer and antelope play. What a terrible idea. The great outdoors is supposed to be about twitter without the capital ‘T.’ How are you supposed to hear it if your cellphone is chirping?

Park managers in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks are considering requests from telecommunications companies that want to erect or upgrade towers, according to a Reuters report.

Tourists basically fall into two camps: the ones who can’t relax in any setting where the reception registers less than three bars and the ones who want to confiscate those cellphones and pitch them in a lake.

Wi-fi enhances the park experience, we’re told. It’s not just about uploading all those geyser photos directly to Facebook. Tourists can use their smartphones to identify flora and fauna, or to get directions to popular park features. And cellphones promote safety. Think of all the times you’ve read about lost hikers, saved by their GPS.

If you’ve actually been to Yellowstone, you can imagine the downside. Think about driving those winding roads behind someone who’s yammering (or texting) while piloting an SUV. Think of the kids, impatient for Old Faithful to erupt, amusing themselves by playing “Angry Birds.” Think of the broken silence outside your tent: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”

Imagine a family photo expedition. Scouring the landscape from your car, you spot a magnificent bull elk feeding at the edge of a lake. You pull over. The driver of the car that’s been riding your bumper for the last 10 minutes pulls over too. Then another, then another. Together you creep closer until you’re almost within telephoto range and then, just as you’re about to raise your camera to frame the shot, someone’s phone rings. You end up with a nice photo of the south end of a northbound elk.

Next scene: Up before dawn in hopes of seeing a bear in its natural setting – as opposed to the ones in the parking lot, mooching from minivans – you happen upon a mother and her cubs, fishing for trout. Your party is crashed by a dozen bozos using a bear-finder app.

The problem is that some people don’t appreciate the difference between a national park and a theme park. It’s one thing to use your cellphone to warn your pals that the line at Space Mountain is two hours long. It’s another thing entirely to tweet the coordinates of a baby moose sighting.

People who can’t live without their cellphones aren’t just the wrong demographic for Yellowstone. They’re the very demographic the rest of us go to Yellowstone to escape. Let’s not encourage them. The call of the wild doesn’t need a ring tone.

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