Wifi in the Woods

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The Wilderness Act of 1964—one of the landmark accomplishments of the modern American environmental movement—turns 50 next month. As it reaches middle age, policy makers are confronting novel challenges that the law’s authors couldn’t have anticipated. Earlier this summer, administrators at Yosemite National Park told visitors to leave their drones at home after park officials started to spot unmanned crafts filming climbers on the park’s iconic granite formations. The Bureau of Land Management is starting to crack down on geocaching on its properties; BLM officials say caches could attract bears and disturb an area’s “wilderness character.”

North of the border, Parks Canada wifi plans have created a stir. By the end of the summer, it says up to 20 of its campgrounds and visitor centers will be connected, with plans to expand the service to 150 locations in its parks within three years. The move sparked a good deal of hand-wringing in the Canadian press. Shortly before he died, Farley Mowat, one of Canada’s best known nature writers, blasted the scheme as “a disastrous, quite stupid, idiotic concept, and should be eliminated immediately.”

The debate over which technologies are appropriate in the parks and preserves is as old as the preservation idea itself; I’m sure that when the first telephone was installed in Yosemite Valley, someone wrote a jeremiad against the idea. In an interview in June, I asked National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis about the prospect of wired wilderness, and he responded with a chuckle. Then he offered this:

“If I get an audience of typical Parks Service officials and I say, ‘What about technology?,’ they’re like, ‘Ohhhh, make them leave those devices at home. We don’t need that.’ And I go, ‘Oh, so you’re still hiking in wool and wearing a wicker pack, huh? You’re not using any technology, right?’ We’ve sort of picked on one piece of technology in this debate—the one that connects us to the rest of the world. And yet we’re using carbon fiber pack frames and Gore-Tex and high-tech stoves and solar whatevers.”

Jarvis also points out that people are going to bring their devices to the wilderness no matter what—in part because people bring their devices everywhere. It’s why he supports more connectivity while some of his colleagues are reluctant.

“It’s a powerful tool for us to provide communications to this next generation who, by the way, are going to bring their devices with them,” Jarvis told me. “They’re not going to leave them behind, and they’re going to expect that they can stay connected. And I think that’s okay. I don’t view it as competition. I view it as a potential to expand the experience.”

Jarvis is right. People aren’t going to leave their devices at home. And so some measure of connectivity, especially in the “front country” of the visitor centers and car campgrounds, can be useful for spreading Muir’s “wilderness gospel.” Also, I don’t have much interest in backpacking as a kind of Civil War reenactment. I like my lightweight, water-resistant space fabrics. I like my high-altitude stove and my sleeping bag and my water filter. Most of the Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers I’ve come across in the Sierra Nevada the past couple of summers are fully GPS-equipped; forget this Cheryl Strayed getting lost bullshit. Modern gear and gizmos make backpacking—if not exactly comfortable—at least bearable.

But there’s one key difference between a Gore-tex rain slicker and a satellite-connected cell phone. While the first enables an adventure into remote places, the second threatens to disrupt it. We all know how addicting our phones can be—how they distract us from the present and distance us from the immediate. It would take a special kind of discipline to resist checking in were the option available. The glance at the phone would start out innocently enough—let’s share this amazing picture of a bear! Then many of us would succumb to connectivity creep. I can easily imagine myself in this scenario imagined by a writer for the Toronto Globe & Mail: “The instant I upload a shot of a mother moose and her calf, I’ll be checking my e-mail, setting up meetings, and spoiling the mood.”

It can hard to say what exactly “the mood” is, since it’s different for each of us. But this much at least is clear: the mood of the wilderness is a stillness not found in human-dominated landscapes. Out in the wild, a different kind of logic rules—a powerful magic, but also a fragile one. It wouldn’t take much more than the ping of a text alert to break the spell. 

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That morning on the tundra, Miller talked about the imaginative value of the wilderness—and how easily it can be obscured. “Most people now can’t see the night stars, because of optical light pollution, because of the sheer volume of electricity, of lights at night,” he said. “They wouldn’t even be able to see the stars to name anything. If you looked to the sky in New York, you’re not going to see anything except a huge cloud reflecting back Times Square. So how does that affect your imagination?” In a word: profoundly. 

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Jason Mark is the editor of the environmental quarterly Earth Island Journal

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