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Dear America: Technology in National Parks

August 22, 2010

Dear America,

We need to talk. See, Leslie Kaufman over at the New York Times tells me that you’ve been wandering out into the wilderness with nothing more than your iPhones and your designer jeans. Seriously? What part of ‘helicopter rescues cost $3,400 an hour’ don’t you understand? I know that the National Park Service’s Rangers are government employees and they technically work for you, but come on. There’s a big difference between a public servant and a just-plain servant. What I’m trying to say is, although it may be cold on top of the mountain and you could really go for a hot cocoa right about now, the Park Service is not the right person to call. The Park Service is not room service (idea for fixing the deficit: full service in National Parks).

This trend is just one example of a pattern we’ve seen before:

  1. Activity X is dangerous.
  2. Device Y makes Activity X safer.
  3. Because Device Y makes Activity X safer, people are less cautious about Activity X, do it more often, and accident rates (paradoxically, perhaps) go up.

In this case, easier access to help while hiking gives people a safety net, which leads to increased use (and abuse) of the safety net. Yes, fewer people are getting stranded in the back country, but at what cost? We see the same trend in road design: ‘safer’ roads with increased signage and lower speed limits actually lead faster, more dangerous driving. (Tom Vanderbilt makes an excellent case for decreased road regulation in his book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). [amazon])

So what’s the answer? Here’s what I propose. First, awareness. Put a notice in the National Park pamphlet about how 911 is for emergencies only. Include a similar statement before you can speak to an actual 911 dispatcher, and physically on the SPOT devices. Anyone who pushes the button on a SPOT device needs to know that they will be evacuated by helicopter immediately. The NPS (read: taxpayers) must not be on the hook for abuses like those cited in the article. Second, economics. This one is tricky, because we want hikers to be able to use 911 for broken limbs, actually running out of food or water, actually getting very lost, or being attacked by bears. The easy solution is to pass it along to private industry and let the market take care of the pricing: if you want hot cocoa delivered to you by helicopter at the top of a mountain, that will be $5,000. A guide to bring you down? $10,000. If you’re really in trouble and need a med-evac, either the government or your insurance will pick up the tab, but otherwise it’s on you. Finally, to prevent repeat callers, everyone who needs a helicopter needs to go home in said helicopter. If you forgot to bring water, you’re going home now.

On a personal note, who do you think you are, asking for cocoa at the top of the mountain? Asking the Park Service to helicopter in and give you some water? I hope we send you a bill soon.

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