Is mobile phone service soon to invade the backcountry at Grand Canyon? There’s a proposal to improve service in the developed areas on the north and south rims of the national park, which will undoubtedly bring more mobile connectivity to areas along the corridor trails and Phantom Ranch at the bottom of Grand Canyon. A public scoping period for the plan ended on August 20, 2019, and there will be a second opportunity for public comment on an environmental assessment later this year. (Dec. 2, 2019 until Jan. 6, 2020 More info)
Some tourists see benefits to adding mobile cell service to the corridor trails, citing that people could be in touch with family during their trek and could call for help if they got into trouble. The potential drawbacks are that it will do away with a true backcountry experience and disrupt the peace and quiet (the digital detox) of a Canyon outing. The corridor trails have seen major increases in day usage with as many as 1000 rim-to-rim trekkers crossing on busy weekends. The quiet solitude of thirty-three years ago is a thing of the past, so maybe it’s inevitable that new technology should arrive too. Except the so-called benefits really aren’t benefits at all.
The park service proposal says they “would consider technologies to avoid spillover of cellular frequencies into the backcountry,” but they acknowledge that “the proposed plan could unintentionally expand cellular services” into the backcountry. This issue has already been dismissed from further consideration because the park service says “These impacts would hopefully be less common and less obtrusive given NPS efforts to encourage visitors who use their personal electronic devices to do so in ways that minimize disturbance to other visitors….”
Many visitors simply won’t abide by the suggestions of NPS. Mobile phone service in the Canyon will create a whole host of problems and provide a false sense of security which could prove a major headache for visitor relations and search and rescue efforts. Imagine a nice quiet campsite next to Bright Angel Creek at the bottom of the Canyon. Your neighbor decides to call their spouse, and you hear their ‘phone’ voice. Annoying enough, but then some kind of disagreement occurs, maybe a full on argument. So much for your peace and quiet. Beyond such an experience, there will be people trying to text, upload pictures, and ‘go live’ to impress their friends and family. There’s enough of this already in non-remote areas of national parks where cell service is available; people fall off cliffs taking a selfie or write on walls and post it online. Do we really want this in the backcountry?
But at least there will be faster access to emergency services? Not necessarily. Say someone twists an ankle or overexerts themselves and gets a little nauseous; they pull out their cell phone to tell emergency services they might be getting into trouble. Will such calls about minor issues start flooding 911 operators or local dispatch?
Right now, there’s a self-rescue idea attached to hiking in Grand Canyon—be prepared and hike smart. If there’s a real emergency, the current protocol is to find a fellow hiker to help out—and they go to a ranger station or emergency phone, if needed. This takes some time, but typically there’s only one call to emergency services. Now imagine ten people with mobile phones. Five of them walk by oblivious to what’s happening, disconnected from their fellow human as if in a coffee shop. The other five call emergency services. The operators then have to weed through all the calls to realize it’s only one incident.
A lot of ‘what ifs’, but it goes even further than this. Mobile service in the corridor will drive away the veterans of Grand Canyon hiking, the stewards of the backcountry who help others make better decisions. These types of people—wanting to get away from it all—will disappear to more remote areas. Many of them already have due to increasing crowds. There’s value to digital detox, to getting away from it all. Many young people have never tuned into nature, dropped out, and learned how to relax. A mobile phone is just another piece of tech preventing them from truly letting go.
Are there better options than allowing a signal into the backcountry? There used to be a pay phone at Phantom Ranch, and people would sometimes line up to make calls to check in with the world above the rim (as it used to be thought of). The Phantom phone stopped working in 2019, but perhaps it could be replaced with some kind of wifi calling area for people who can’t part with their mobile device even on a Grand Canyon hike. This seems a much better idea than invading the backcountry with a cell signal or having people give the location (up near the junction of the Clear Creek Trail) where they got an intermittent signal. Let the world above the rim go!
Overcrowding and technology are marking the end of an era for the Grand Canyon corridor trails. A new backcountry management plan is on the horizon (supposedly). All of our parks are getting overrun, but enhancing telecommunications technology in foolish ways might only serve to make things much worse. Look before you leap, and don’t walk blindly off a precipice while staring at a screen connected to a virtual world above the rim well worth escaping for a spell.