If you think technology has no place in the national parks, think again
On their 100th anniversary, Grist is exploring America’s national parks and the humans who use them. See the full series.
It’s easy to blame it all on the cellphone tower. It’s right there, ruining the postcard-perfect shot you line up on your smartphone screen on your visit to Old Faithful.
Cellphone coverage and wireless internet are seeping into the parts of the country we like to think of as one-hundred-percent-natural, frozen in pre-industrial time. Of the 412 parks and monuments administered by the National Park Service, none is more iconic than Yellowstone National Park. Yet half of this bison- and bear-filled wilderness has cellphone reception, and there has been talk of running a high-speed fiber optic cable to the park through the Tetons.
“The question is not whether technology is good or bad, or appropriate or inappropriate — it’s all those things,” says Gary Machlis, science advisor to the director of the National Park Service. “It can do amazing things, and it can cause unintended consequences and harm. What we’ve gotta do is be very thoughtful.”
As the National Park Service marks its 100th trip around the sun, it faces an all-you-can-eat buffet of challenges from the fickle attention of an increasingly urbanized population to the titanic threat of climate change. Whether it’s drones or data plans, the technologies that are increasingly fundamental to the way we live will become a bigger and bigger part of all life on Earth. That means our parks are changing, whether we like it or not.
All that connectivity brings more than just think-pieces about the shenanigans of screen-addicted tourists (and there are plenty of those). We’re also getting unprecedented access to some of the wildest places in America, for more Americans than ever before. We have better data for scientists and new vistas for would-be visitors — and all that means a better shot at protecting these places for another hundred years.
I’d bet I’m in the majority of the American population when I say that I’ve never seen a bear. At least, not in the wild — but that distinction might turn out to mean less than you’d guess.
This summer, 2 million people tuned in to watch the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park standing knee-deep in the gushing glacial Brooks River, scooping up salmon with the lazy enthusiasm of a Thanksgiving guest going in for a third helping of mashed potatoes. Some veteran viewers, many of whom have never been closer to a grizzly than the livestream on their computer monitor, can recognize the individual bears that return year after year to the river as the salmon do. On message boards and in live chats with park rangers, they share screenshots and guess at the identity of this or that bear lumbering through the stream, trying to predict when a venerable grizzly named Otis will show up this year.
Jeffrey Skibins, a professor of conservation and park management at Kansas State University, is interested in the huge fandom these bears have accumulated online. Skibins was surprised when he learned just how popular the Katmai bear cams, hosted by the nonprofit explore.org, were. So he teamed up with fellow KSU researcher Ryan Sharpe to figure out what’s going on with all this long-distance bear appreciation.
“Brazil is one of the largest international audiences,” Skibins tells me on the phone. “How great is that we can reach an audience and talk about the plight of these bears with folks in Brazil who may never get a chance to see them?”
Forget Brazil — I’ve been glued to the Alaskan feed from my office in the Lower 48. Letting it play in the background of my monitor at work (sorry, boss!) feels like fair compensation for all the sunny days I spend shackled to my desk (in the service of you fine people of the Internet) instead of running across a real bear in the wild woods of Washington.
And I’m not the only one with a short tether to the web. Roughly three out of every four Americans spend some time online every day, and about a third of those say they are online “almost constantly,” according to Pew research. Skibins wants to know if office drones blissing out to pristine Alaskan ecosystems are having the same kind of emotional experiences that flesh-and-blood visitors to Katmai feel.
“We’re trying to understand, after viewing the brown bears online or on-site, what is your emotional response? And what is your connection to those animals?” Skibins says. To that end, he and Sharpe devised a survey that asks viewers to rate how much they agree with statements like “I need to learn everything I can about brown bears” and “I would alter my lifestyle to help protect brown bears.”
“That’s not necessarily a strictly intellectual response, that’s something that’s really more heartfelt,” Skibins says. That emotional component — as opposed to a purely intellectual interest — can predict whether a person will actually do something to help the bears. “We’ve seen that the stronger a person’s emotional response is, the greater the likelihood is that they’ll participate in some action to help protect that animal.”
If livestreams from a remote corner of Alaska can lead millions of people to form an emotional response to an animal they’ve never encountered in real life, maybe that means bears have gained millions of new defenders. At least, that’s what he wants to find out.
And people say the internet is only good for porn.
Data, data, everywhere
Before she started teaching computers to recognize bird calls, Alexis Diana Earl was counting marmots.
At the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, her days were spent conducting surveys for a decades-long study: “It was hiking miles and miles to spend an entire day sitting with your scope, taking notes on what all the marmots are doing.”
Don’t get it twisted: She had fun. But when it comes to collecting usable data, traditional fieldwork like this is slow and often unreliable. You know that saying: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” Well, for a long time, scientists have needed to be in the right place at the right time to be able to hear what’s going on in the forest. But sending field researchers out to count seabirds or listen for frog calls is expensive and limited — a human scientist needs to sleep at some point.
A microphone, on the other hand, needs nothing but a fresh set of batteries and an empty memory card. Scientists are beginning to figure out how to use new durable, affordable cameras and microphones to take bigger, more detailed pictures of the species and ecosystems they study.
But when you start listening to the forest around the clock, you rack up a lot of data in a hurry.
Which is why Earl isn’t counting marmots anymore. Now she spends most of her days in a trailer in Santa Cruz, sitting in front of a computer screen and sifting through terabytes of data as an analyst for Conservation Metrics, a three-year-old company that aims to mine and refine environmental data to track elusive and endangered species. Once scientists get a better picture of the animal population they track, managers can make more informed decisions about how to protect them.
Although using audio recordings to track hard-to-spot species isn’t new, the amount of information that companies and scientists can collect is unprecedented. Last year, Conservation Metrics’ largest project collected 83,000 hours of data. “You can’t work with 80,000 hours of data in an Excel file,” Earl says. “You can’t even open that Excel file.”
Instead, the analysts at CMI break all that data down into two-second snippets. They tag a couple of these snippets that sound like what they’re looking for — a certain species or a specific kind of call — and feed those examples into an algorithm that finds the similarities between them. Using those shared features, the algorithm builds a template of the sound it’s looking for, and precedes to comb through unwieldy piles of data hunting down all of the matches.
In this way, the computers can chew through 83,000 hours of data and count, say, every time a spotted owl calls versus the number of barred owls that called. The results tell scientists and managers a lot that they might not otherwise ever know about the activity of a certain species, the interactions between species, and the health of the overall ecosystem.
In the Channel Islands National Park, for example, Conservation Metrics is monitoring a newly re-established breeding colony of Ashy storm petrels, a migratory seabird that was able to return to Anacapa Island after an extensive campaign to eradicate the invasive rats that had been eating the birds’ eggs. Without remote-sensing devices, it would be harder to tell if all that effort to create a safe haven for the petrels had actually worked.
Earl points out that there’s another benefit to using recording devices for some of the field work that biologists used to do by hand. “If you’re in the field, you’re just taking down data around what you’re interested in at the time,” she says. “But if you put out a remote-sensing device, it’s collecting everything — especially if you have a network of sensors, acoustic sensors and camera traps and video. Then you have a full picture of what’s going on.”
If you find something interesting in the data, you can comb through it again and again, asking a different question every time.
Conservation Metrics is starting to analyze images from camera traps and drone footage, as well — and the parks are figuring out how to deploy these and other technologies. In the future, new devices that can sense minute details of air and water chemistry will help parks subtly monitor environmental changes, and algorithms will help scientists sort through genomes with ease. We will be able to sift DNA from streams and tease out subtle changes in forest ecology from satellite images.
“We’re just excited to take on as much data as possible,” Earl says.
The surveillance state never looked so good.
Right now, 68 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and 46 percent of them claim they couldn’t live without it, according to research from Pew. Bemoan it all you like, we’re heading to a world that is increasingly social, virtual, and mobile.
Visitors to the national parks, like so much of the public, are entranced by their smartphones. A 2015 industry survey found that when campers had access to email, they spent an average of three extra days outside. A full 88 percent of respondents took a smartphone camping with them; some brought a laptop or a tablet. Only 7 percent went totally tech-free.
Cellphone coverage and wifi in parks could change more than just the waiting time between taking that Mount Rushmore selfie and letting the “likes” pour in. It could also help lure a wider range of people into the national parks. In a century when America will see the end of its white majority, the National Park Service still looks pretty monochromatic, from its green-hatted staff to its 307 million yearly visitors.
According to a new survey from New America Media, people of color don’t feel they have the same access to public lands as white people. Some of that is because of a knowledge gap — half of respondents said that one big obstacle is not knowing that much about public lands. Smartphones could help bridge that gap.
Maybe that’s one reason that, in that industry camping survey, African-Americans were the group most likely to favor campgrounds with free wifi. One of the major reported uses of technology on camping trips is to do research on nearby attractions and look up directions. If technology can make this information more accessible to a segment of the American population who might not have parents or friends to induct them into the culture of the outdoors, then it has enormous potential to make parks more democratic.
And that can only strengthen a Park Service hoping to cultivate a new generation of advocates. Overall, younger, non-white people are more likely to say mobile technology enriches their experience of the outdoors, according to a survey by Michael Schuett, a professor of recreation at Texas A&M.
Of course, some people don’t want cellphones in the wild, no matter what. “There is, at the core of the parks service, a conservative nature,” says Machlis, the Park Service’s science advisor; hence all those conservative conservationists complaining about the kids and their Facebooks. The mission statement of the NPS includes a mandate to preserve parks “unimpaired” for future generations, after all. It also includes an inducement to provide “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration” of the public.
“It’s often said that those two are contradictory, but they’re not,” Machlis says. “They’re really organically connected, because it’s ‘preserve unimpaired’ so it can provide a special, distinctive ‘enjoyment.’ The two fit together.”
Nothing and no one gets stuck in time, not really — not even sacred cows. In the 21st century, the national parks need to cultivate 21st century fans. Maybe we are all busier, more distracted, and more urban than we were in 1916. We’re also more integrated with the social and virtual worlds that technology opens up to us.
“For a long time, the premise has been, national parks thrive on that emotional response people have by being there,” says Skibins, the Kansas State professor. “Who isn’t awestruck by standing in Yosemite, or Yellowstone, or the Everglades?”
But what if you can get that same awestruck feeling by watching bears swipe up salmon 1,500 miles away, or by that photo your friend posted of the sun rising over over the Grand Canyon, or the lushly saturated pictures the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Instagram account posts to its 1.1 million followers every day?
Embracing new technology could help turn casual visitors into passionate conservationists. Virtual reality is emerging as a powerful way to immerse people in exotic settings, and services like Snapchat and Facebook Live give people an opportunity to share experiences with others around the world.
That, it turns out, is an older story than you might think. After all, the parks were established by people who had yet to see them in person.
In 1871, a U.S. Geological Survey made a 40-day expedition through what is now Yellowstone. They were some of the first Western people to marvel at the hot springs and geysers of the central plateau and stand in amazement over the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
Along with the survey were artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson, who used the technology of their day — paints, canvas, collodion process — to create the first pictures of what is now Yellowstone National Park.
They sent those pictures back to the U.S. Capitol, where they helped convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in 1872.
“They did it because they had all been there based on virtual experiences,” Machlis says. “How is that different than staring at a screen?”
More stories in this series:
Jamaica Bay is an imperiled swamp nestled next to the biggest city in America — and it has a lot to teach us.
The folks with trees, mountains, and bison on their badges have decided it’s high time to serve city dwellers.
A little park safety awareness wouldn’t kill you.
The parks are having an identity crisis — so we renamed them.
Get Grist in your inbox