National parks balancing demands for cell service, silence

PHOENIX (AP) — Musetta Vander has been to several of the most iconic national parks and landscapes in the U.S., capturing herself doing a yoga pose among the Joshua trees, driving on a tree- lined highway framed by Yosemite's towering rock formations and sitting at the edge of a cliff overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Colorado River. “However, I feel that you miss out on the magical experience nature provides you when you don’t let go of social media or whatever else is consuming your mind.” Vander’s travels illustrate a long-running debate over how connected national park visitors can or should be to the internet. The coronavirus shows the need for better internet service as more people work from home, said Christine Gale Reynolds, who lives in Yosemite Village within the park. She and her husband got lost visiting the federally managed Trona Pinnacles, massive rock structures in the central California desert, and couldn’t get cell service. Federal law requires parks to consider permits for infrastructure that could expand internet, cellphone and radio service. Upgrading communications equipment can help in emergencies and with traffic cameras, electronic message boards and visitor tracking, said Lacayo, the park service spokeswoman. But the need to get a perfect shot for social media requires reminders for “safety over selfie,” as people sometimes venture close to cliff edges, Lacayo said by email. “The interior of Yellowstone has been starved for bandwidth,” said Bret De Young, branch chief of technology, adding that the popularity of smartphones meant equipment installed in 2008 was overburdened within a year. Visitor numbers have more than doubled in the past decade, and the park relies on social media to let people know about conditions like flash floods in slot canyons.