|Mount Rainier as seen from the Wonderland|
Trail near Mowich Lake in Mount Rainier National
Park, Wash. The 93-mile trail, established in 1915,
encircles the mountain. Photo:
John Froschauer, AP
Cell phone towers in the backcountry rob us of wilderness
by Jason Mark, sfchronicle.com, 5 May 2017
But my enthusiasm dimmed when a government watchdog group revealed that the proposed construction of new communication towers in and near the park would extend cell phone service into thousands of acres of wilderness. The view would be the same, but the experience would no doubt change. A getaway is no escape if you’re tempted to check your email and update your social feeds.
The planned expansion of cellular coverage at Mount Rainier National Park is part of a larger trend across our public lands. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, officials are set to approve a proposed cell tower 1,000 feet from the wilderness boundary that might spread phone coverage into the largest wilderness area in North Dakota. Many parts of Yellowstone National Park’s vast backcountry (not technically a designated wilderness, but unquestionably one of the wildest places left in the Continental United States) already have 4G wireless coverage; officials there are now planning for the construction of a sixth communications tower that, some conservationists fear, would strengthen cell coverage. Communication signals also stretch into the labyrinthine lakes of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, the most popular wilderness area in America.
This creeping connectivity into otherwise undeveloped landscapes violates the spirit, and very likely the letter, of the Wilderness Act, a bedrock of U.S. conservation law. The act makes clear that many technologies — the chain saw, the bulldozer, the wheel in any form — are incompatible with wilderness. Although the cell towers are being built outside of wilderness areas, their reach easily vaults over the two-dimensional boundaries on the map, changing the vibe of the wild. The law explicitly prohibits “commercial enterprises” and “motorized equipment” within a wilderness. Under the law, a wilderness is defined as an “untrammeled” place that boasts “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
Constant communication is antithetical to those values.
The ideal of solitude is rendered meaningless as soon as you’re able to stay in touch with people around the world. The feeling of being unconfined evaporates when mental space shrinks to the size of a login page.
I understand that, if you’re a stranger to the unique rewards of the backcountry, these concerns might sound like arcane aesthetic objections. So consider this: As a place that lies beyond the daily dictates of the corporation and the state, the wilderness also serves an essential civic function. Wilderness is a physical guarantor of liberty, a place that in U.S. history has served as an escape for the heretic, the political nonconformist, and the fugitive slave. A connected wilderness might be cool — Instagram the summit right from the mountaintop! — but it would come at the cost of sacrificing the wild’s civic value.
Twentieth-century conservationists intuitively understood the political importance of wild places. “Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” ecological philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote. Having just witnessed the horrors of World War II, author-activist Edward Abbey made the point more sharply. “The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons,” he wrote. “We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political repression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone, and the High Sierras may be required as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny.”
That might seem overheated. But in the age of Donald Trump, some of the most centrist and sober commentators have warned about the fascistic characteristics of the new government. And in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency data sweeps, three-quarters of Americans say they are worried about how much of their personal data is captured during their online activities. When Abbey was writing, computers were the size of a station wagon and there were many places the telephone and the television didn’t reach; today, with satellite GPS, none of Leopold’s “blank spots on the map” remains.
Nevertheless, America’s 110 million acres of wilderness still represent something of a digital white space, a place mostly outside the matrix. In this age of omnipresent connectivity and creeping authoritarianism, that makes wilderness more important than ever.
We live in a world of constant, comprehensive visibility — a digital Panopticon, as it were. Our purchases, our interests, our friendships, our opinions and our movements are tracked and cataloged. Algorithms predict our every want and need. This openness may have begun innocently enough: Share your birthday with Facebook, and you’ll get plenty of well-wishes when the day rolls around. But, for many of us, the transparency is beginning to feel more like a constriction, because it means there’s almost nowhere left to hide. This digital enclosure poses a threat to liberty and self-reliance. The same programs that allow for Big Data convenience can also be used for Big Brother surveillance. Imagine: Suddenly, the fitness tracker on your wrist allows the government to know the rhythm of your heartbeat.
If it ever comes to that, then the wilderness will go from being a sentimental nicety to a political necessity — the last freehold from the code.
As long as it remains off-grid and unconnected, the physical wilderness can serve as a counterweight to the threats of digital surveillance — whether corporate or governmental. The wild naturally frustrates the pretensions of any authoritarian. While the wannabe autocrat relies on the perception of inevitability — resistance is futile — the wilderness is a bastion of unpredictability. Bones in the underbrush and fearsome forests and lawless storms: as a repository of mystery, the wild keeps a ragged edge to the world, the kind of edge that reminds us that history zigs as often as it zags. As any ecologist can tell you, the wilderness is living proof of how easily attempts at command and control go awry.
For political reasons as well as aesthetic ones, then, we need to keep wilderness free from the net and out of the web. The cell towers that already send their signals into wilderness areas need to come down. The ones on the drawing board need to be scrapped. Among its many other tasks, the 21st century conservation movement must dedicate itself to preserving wilderness from the reach of Wi-Fi, so that the wilderness remains a haven where citizens can walk unwatched.
Jason Mark is the author of “Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man,” (Island Press, 2015) and the editor in chief of Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club.
Online: To learn about Jason Mark’s book, “Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man,” (Island Press, 2015) go to http://amzn.to/1OJ64Zr.