Let cellular service come to Paradise

From the Editorial Board

The paved trails around Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park may soon have cell phone coverage.
The paved trails around Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park may soon have cell phone coverage. jmayor@thenewstribune.com

This might be the last summer a Puget Sounder can escape to an isolated place free from the pollution of cell phone chatter. Because if you can’t find a little digital isolation atop a 14,411-foot mountain, where can you find it?

Paradise, known for its wildflower meadows and breathtaking views, is the most popular destination at Mount Rainier National Park, and has been proposed for wireless communication equipment.

“Can you hear me now?” could soon be a question of the past.

We lament the death of solitude in America’s wide-open spaces and cringe at the thought of visitors asking Siri for advice or narrating their day hike in real time via cell phone. But the question of whether to facilitate cellular access is simple and can be answered in the affirmative: Would it help more than harm?

Right now, lack of cell coverage at Paradise and along the road above Longmire impedes how first responders receive and deliver communication during an emergency. For search and rescue, cell phones are literally a lifeline.

When Mount Rainier Ranger Margaret Anderson was shot and killed by a gunman who ran a checkpoint in the winter of 2012, law enforcement, including the FBI, had trouble communicating and had difficulty warning other park visitors of the criminal at-large.

While temporary towers can be installed in case of emergency, they will not help if time is essential to survival.

Thankfully, visual aesthetics aren’t at issue in this proposal because the Park Service isn’t considering a full-fledged cell tower. The gear and antennas would be concealed behind panels at the Paradise Visitor Center.

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have applied to install the equipment on the south side of the mountain. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandates a period for public comment.

The park announced the proposal in November, and recently said it had received nearly 500 responses thus far; they were split fairly evenly between support and opposition. The comment period ends July 19. If you care about the future of Paradise, make sure you are heard.

When Jack London wrote “The Call of the Wild,” he wasn’t thinking of the kind you make via smart phone. But wireless devices are an intrinsic part of 21st century life; to ignore the safety benefits they bring would be taking two giant steps back.

Of course, technology is no substitute for common sense. As headlines will attest, people have fallen to their deaths taking “Look, Ma, no hands” selfies and have snapped pictures of wildlife seconds before being maimed or becoming the animal’s entree.

Informed adventurers already know to carry satellite communicators, which are reliable beyond the range of the average cell phone. It’s part of the wilderness checklist along with selecting appropriate clothing and equipment, hiking with a companion, checking weather and trail conditions, and letting others know your itinerary.

But for most Mount Rainier tourists and day-trippers, 70 percent of whom flock to Paradise, a cell phone is the only source of communication.

We understand the romantic notion of getting off the grid. But having a cell phone can be a matter of life or death, and for that reason alone, we’re for this proposal.

We hope encounters with people clueless about cell phone etiquette will be like encounters with people clueless about campfires, litter or feeding the wildlife: few and far between.

Most folks who visit Mount Rainier do it to unplug and enjoy nature as it was meant to be enjoyed. And there’s certainly not an app for that.