In Grand Canyon National Park, almost $150 million is needed to make repairs to existing trails and the water system. The park has more than four million visitors a year. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

This year, the National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its centennial, and there are numerous plans and scheduled activities to encourage more Americans to discover and explore their national parks. But one future plan is gaining even more attention: the NPS would like to bring high-speed Internet service to every national park in the U.S. by 2018.

While that sounds progressive and relevant for today’s plugged-in park visitor, there may be a dark side to such an offering. The park service is currently in dire need of other—perhaps more critical—improvements, and the money spent on bringing Internet service to the parks might be better spent elsewhere: a backlog of maintenance projects runs into the billions of dollars, mostly for infrastructure.

Will having high-speed Internet service draw more people into the parks if the roads and historic buildings continue to fall into major disrepair and begin crumbling around us as we check our smartphones?

Connecting with millennials

The “Geyser App” in Yellowstone informs visitors of eruption times in the Upper Geyser Basin. ©Tim Gillespie

The “Geyser App” in Yellowstone informs visitors of eruption times in the Upper Geyser Basin. ©Tim Gillespie

To engage new generations of people who will care about our national parks, the service does need to adapt with the times. Millennials (usually defined as those whose birth years range from the early 1980s to the early 2000s) connect primarily through technology and having Internet service in the parks would provide them with more content about the landmarks, environment and monuments via a delivery system that they prefer. Since part of the National Park Service’s mission is to provide “enjoyment, education and inspiration [for] this and future generations,” equipping all national parks with high-speed Internet makes sense.

According to a December 23, 2015, article in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Grand Teton National Park is developing an application that would provide maps and basic information on particular areas by accessing the GPS on visitors’ phones. For example, you might open the app and see photos of what the location you’re standing in looked like 100 years ago. Yellowstone National Park has a “Geyser App” that notifies visitors of eruption times in the Upper Geyser Basin.

While the NPS says that the main purpose of the high-speed Internet service will be to provide park visitors with easier access to park-specific information, they do admit it will also appeal to those who want to meet their professional obligations while in the parks. That could mean that more people will be working in some of our most beautiful landscapes.

I don’t mean to suggest, however, that you’ll see and hear people talking and doing business on their phones everywhere in the national parks. The NPS is not proposing to wire the backcountry. Internet access would be concentrated in the already developed parts of the parks. Currently, there aren’t any plans to bring high-speed Internet to the remote areas. But given what we know about the quick pace of technology, how far away can that possibility really be?

Tackling a backlog

While this new service has a lot of promise for bringing people into the parks, what condition will those parks be in when they get there?

Millennials prefer connecting to national parks primarily through technology. ©NPS/Brad Sutton

Millennials prefer connecting to national parks primarily through technology. ©NPS/Brad Sutton

The picture isn’t rosy. The NPS reports that its total deferred maintenance as of September 30, 2014, was $11.5 billion dollars. And some of our best-known, most cherished parks are suffering the most. In Yosemite, the maintenance backlog includes more than $550 million, $100 million of which is considered critical. Roughly $19 million is needed to upgrade an aging sewer system to prevent spills, such as the one 15 years ago that leaked thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the Merced River. In Grand Canyon National Park, more than $100 million is needed to repair the water system and $44 million to fix the trail network. Yellowstone National Park needs $633 million in repairs.

According to an op-ed piece by Reed Watson and Scott Wilson in The New York Times last June, included in the backlog is:

  • $5.6 billion for park roads,
  • $4.5 billion for historic structures,
  • $1.8 billion for buildings,
  • $473 million for trails,
  • $255 million for wastewater systems and
  • $62 million for campgrounds.

In addition, in 2013 the National Park Service estimated that it would need to spend $700 million per year just to prevent deferred maintenance from rising above the current $11.5 billion backlog.

It seems that it would be the opportune time, in this National Park Service centennial year, especially, as more Americans are inspired and motivated to check out their national parks, to make sure that our parks’ trails, roads and buildings can accommodate the people—young and old—we hope will come and learn to love these lands as much as we do.

While I’m not sure that repairs versus high-speed Internet availability is an either/or choice, I do know that I wouldn’t pick the latter. Would you?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy