Yellowstone may boost cell, internet service

Connectivity and congestion hot topics at Cody luncheon

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Improved cell and Wi-Fi service may be coming to Wyoming’s national park properties, according to park leaders.

Yellowstone National Park’s new superintendent Cameron Sholly said he personally wishes people would leave their cellphones at the hotel or at home and just enjoy the park, but new generations of visitors and the families of employees — including Sholly’s own son — interact differently from his generation.

Sholly said it’s imperative that plans include improvements for connectivity. That will become increasingly important in the coming decades, he said, not only for visitors who want to share their discoveries on social media, but to help recruit employees who are bringing their families to live in parks. However, he said those upgrades won’t come at the expense of the landscape.

“We’re never going to put cell towers in areas — at least while I’m the superintendent — that hurt or damage the scenic integrity of [Yellowstone],” Sholly said. “That will not happen.”

He’s counting on technological improvements to make placement a non-issue.

“[Designs] have evolved substantially; they’re putting cell towers in flag poles and chimneys,” Sholly said. “And I think you’re going to see technology continue to advance to where they are almost invisible to the human eye.”

Grand Teton National Park Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail echoed Sholly’s hope for future improvements and said park leaders need to be careful not to react to the desire for online solutions in a way that can be perceived as institutional arrogance.

“We need to be open to what other people’s experiences are,” Noojibail said. “Hiking or going into the backcountry is one thing, but people want to be doing their own things — finding their own park.”

While coverage isn’t necessary in isolated backcountry areas, Sholly considers it important in road corridors and developed areas — a blend for those who want to escape and those who want to stay connected.

“I think [improvements are] a smart idea where it can be done prudently,” he said.

Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, also thinks a connected park experience is needed.

“It’s vital,” she said. “That’s how people consume information now.”

As the state looks to diversify revenue streams, Shober is selling tourism as the right path. And drawing more visitors to the state means giving tourists their “lifeblood.”

“It’s like your right arm is gone if you don’t have that connection. And it enhances the experience,” she said. “If you just saw a wolf, you should be able to look it up [online] and learn more about them. We need to embrace that technology.”

Wyoming’s tourism hinges largely on northwest Wyoming’s national parks, with Park and Teton counties accounting for 50 percent of all overnight visitors in the state.

Sholly of Yellowstone, Noojibail of Grand Teton and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Superintendent Mike Tranel spoke about the future of the parks and their relationship with gateway communities as part of Cody Chamber of Commerce’s annual National Parks Day Luncheon.

Tranel is working on several park improvements — including future plans to open a facility similar to Horseshoe Bend in the north section of the park.

“We have [a vendor] that’s interested,” he said.

Sholly hopes to find a way to overcome more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance across all the National Park Service’s properties in Wyoming while making improvements to congested travel corridors and employee residences.

He said many Yellowstone employees live in substandard housing, including old, moldy trailers; Sholly intends to update the living quarters as soon as possible. The superintendent said he’s also prioritizing high traffic areas, looking for ways to alleviate congestion and parking woes without restricting the number of visitors coming into the park. He said he does not believe the park is overrun with visitors and that reallocating resources can relieve much of the traffic congestion and parking problems.

However, “If we’re sitting here with 6 million visitors in a couple years, I think the conversation we’ll all want to have is quite different than what it is today,” Sholly said.

Sholly said the number of visits at NPS properties has increased by 50 million over the past five years, but that was thanks in part to global advertising by the Park Service.

“It would be a little disingenuous for us to turn around and say, ‘Let’s restrict and cap visitors coming in,’” he said.

Park County Commission Chairman Jake Fulkerson opened the question and answer period by asking, “How can Cody prepare for the visitor experience 20 years from now?”

Sholly suggested Cody might want to build a parking lot to serve as a hub for shuttles taking people into and out of Yellowstone.

“I think you’re going to see an approach over 20 years that will be quite different,” he said. “As visitation goes up, we’re going to need to get much more sophisticated with our gateways and our operations within the park on how we manage visitation. You can’t get to 6 or 8 million visitors in Yellowstone and think that’s going to be doable.”

But there’s a problem with shuttles, Sholly said. “What we found is a large number of people favor shuttles as long as they don’t have to take them.”

He said he’s looking at where it would be feasible to start shuttle services. Shuttles from the larger parking areas inside the park to transport visitors to top attractions is also a possibility. At the end of his question and answer period, Sholly tugged at former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson to join the conversation. Simpson jokingly shut down the attempt.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “I’ve been through the war.”

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