Wi-Fi in Wild Spaces? No thank you.

Yosemite National Park Visitor Center (A Free Wifi Area)

Imagine camping in a national park. Do you picture sitting around a smoldering campfire enjoying gooey s’mores and planning tomorrow’s hike? Me too. But a team of Trump-appointed advisors wants to modernize that outdated scene.

Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that an advisory committee pitched a plan to “upgrade” national park campgrounds with Wi-Fi, food trucks, and even Amazon deliveries. America’s Best Idea is too old-fashioned, they argued. It must join the rest of us in the 21st century. Their new proposal begs the question: do the national parks need a technological revolution? 

Before diving into the downsides of the recommendations, I should acknowledge that the committee proposed some much-needed improvements: more campsites designed for extended families, improved partnership and planning with gateway communities, and better equipment rentals in the national parks. But the detractors in their proposal far outweigh its bright spots. 

Yosemite National Park Night Sky
The starry night sky from Yosemite National Park’s volunteer campground. The only light pollution here was from a campfire.

Concerns on 3 Levels

First, the committee pitches some clunkers. (They include raising prices on seniors and sharing your data with third parties that could mark up rates or bombard you with invasive ads.) At first glance most of these ideas seem innocuously part of the usual bureaucratic brainstorming process. Yet when taken collectively and in context of this administration’s approach to public lands, it becomes clear that drastically modernizing national park facilities is a priority not for the benefit of the public, but for the benefit of private commercial interests. A final layer more concerning is that these recommendations and their underlying motivations are not at all informed by the current state of the National Park Service nor its 100-year-old mission. 

Will Parks Fall Behind?

Unlike the age of the first national parks, when Yellowstone was hewn out of a remote wilderness, today’s parks are engulfed by civilization. Encroaching gateway communities border nearly all national parks, largely eliminating the need to replicate tourist services within their boundaries. In the case of internet access, isn’t it already ubiquitous enough? Many parks visitors are within the range of a cell tower. NPS visitor centers already offer free Wi-Fi. A majority of park visitors are a short drive or bus ride from eating at a McDonald’s, staying at a Holiday Inn, or entertaining the kids at a zip-line adventure park. All have free Wi-Fi. This proximate hospitality not only includes available internet, but also every other consumer convenience imaginable.

I see only two motivations that explain the desire to submerge some of our last remaining wild places under cellular and internet waves: a concern of losing visitors because the parks will seem too quaint for an umbilically digital generation; or (more worrying still) a means to fleece visitors in a marketplace blissfully devoid of commercial competition.

First, the unfounded concern that parks are losing visitors. All indications point to the opposite: our national parks are loved to death. The National Parks saw a record number of visitors in 2016, over 330 million, a threefold increase since 1990. From Acadia to Zion, understaffed and underfunded parks are struggling to corral record numbers of tourists while at the same time providing clean, modern facilities and the unparalleled nature experiences these visitors expect. Because it detracts from the experience, parks are looking for ways to keep pervasive technology at bay, not lower the drawbridge and invite it inside.

Balancing Business & Pleasure

Second, commercial access to the parks has long been debated. In 1917, millionaire industrialist Stephen Mather became the first director of the National Park Service. He introduced concessions to parks, partnered with the largest industry of the age—railroads—and later advocated for highways to connect and run through the National Park System. Each of these actions was a judgement on the proper balance of the National Park Service’s paradoxical mission: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

But Mather understood that the new National Park Service desperately needed citizen champions. At that time, the very future of the agency depended on it. In hindsight, Mather’s work establishing the parks opened the door for future generations to define the other side of their mission, emphasizing the NPS role as a safeguard for vanishing species and landscapes, one-of-a-kind historical landmarks and artifacts, and places for teaching and research.

The NPS commissioned the Leopold Report which reframed the goal of the agency in 1963: to “represent a vignette of primitive America.” And slowly, after the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, Congress began designating thousands of acres within National Parks places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” The Wilderness Act clearly explained that we should not be concerned with too little civilization in wild places, but too much:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

The Wilderness Act of 1964

Fittingly, given the agency’s double-edged mandate, today about half the National Park System is Wilderness, 40 million acres.

While no one expects every acre of the National Park System to convince us that we missed the successful launch of the time machine, this spirit strikes at the soul of the agency. The Park Service is not an agency of advancement, but one of preservation. We must embrace that fact as the distinguishing feature that makes the parks authentic, driving their popularity in a modern age.

However, the astute judgement and civic values of leaders like Mather are no longer the norm. The modern conservative businessman whose influence will likely determine the future of the next 100 years of the National Park Service does not advocate for new government agencies, the expansion of government landholdings, or proudly join conservation groups like the Sierra Club.

This committee’s implied justifications for the “modernization” of the National Park Service are asinine. Not only are the parks already overrun with tourists, but rising costs, the agency’s crumbling budget, and the much maligned $11 billion maintenance backlog should be the highest priorities for proponents of the National Park Service—not whether or not campgrounds have Wi-Fi. 

The Price of Admission

Because the administration has not prioritized existing challenges, I doubt is has considered what a poorly conceived NPS “upgrade” could have on regular American families. If the motivation is to make more money from the parks, all while cutting the NPS budget, then the only result would be making the national parks more expensive and harder for even middle class Americans to enjoy.

When the average American family plans a getaway to an American National Park, they already face rising park entrance fees (which range from $30 to $80 annually), steep nightly camping reservation fees ($25+ a night), and the cost of gasoline and gear (tents, sleeping bags, outdoor cooking equipment, and more). A vacation to the great outdoors is supposed to be accessible, a salve for a hyper-consumptive culture, a low-cost way to get away. Because park budgets are dropping (and the money has to come from somewhere), we can assume that technology upgrades will hike camping fees. A weekend in Yosemite becomes quickly out of reach. 

To Recap

The committee’s recommendations demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the current state of NPS funding while failing to grasp the origin and purpose of the National Park Service itself. 

As National Parks’ buildings and roads crumble, their budgets fall, and the specters of climate change and government shutdowns harshly reminds us of what happens to underfunded parks (besides losing more money), these parks must welcome more visitors than ever before in their history. It’s clear that this committee’s aim to “boost net agency revenues” by transferring campground control to “private sector partners” is not to provide a better experience to the American public, but to privatize for the sake of spreading more money around to businesses who likewise care little for things like working bathrooms or quiet spaces.

If enacted, these recommendations could devolve into an irreparable disaster for our nation’s most cherished places and our nation’s most trusted government agency. (Though the competition is lacking on that last count.) The National Park System is too precious to corrupt with wanton commercial impartiality. 

Campgrounds not Glampgrounds

The public needs more campgrounds, not glampgrounds. The public needs working facilities and low fees, not more “decisions in the marketplace.” Campers who will pay for more in the marketplace during their vacation can book a hotel or stay at a techno-savvy RV park. Let’s not bring Bryce City into Bryce Canyon itself.

The agency charged to steward our natural heritage should be the last bastion from the fate we everyday draw closer to, a “technological termite life” completely out of touch with that historic or natural world we had wanted to save in the first place. 

Commercial interests in Congress only allowed the creation of the first national park, Yellowstone, because it was deemed hard-to-access with lousy mining prospects. But today, the National Parks represent one the of last frontiers in a marketplace otherwise supersaturated with satiating screens. An enticing and untapped potential waits within park boundaries. The design of the attention- and consumer-economies is to fill every potentially profitable nook and cranny of society, including the heretofore relatively untouched National Parks.

This administration seems content with the idea that the National Parks are places where sitting in the dark scrolling on phones and ordering firewood via voice-activated digital assistants is the future. They would have you trade the glow of a warm campfire for the glow of a screen.

To the advisors who think the National Park Service is “behind the times”: that’s the point. 

We want to keep it that way.