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Updated: Is Big Brother Heading for Yellowstone National Park's Backcountry?


Why do Yellowstone officials think they need a network of webcams in the park's backcountry? NPT file photo of backcountry site overlooking Yellowstone Lake.

What would you think if your travels in Yellowstone National Park's backcountry were being watched by rangers via a remote webcam? It's not out of the realm of possibility under a Wireless Communications Services Plan that the park adopted last spring.

Here's the pertinent paragraph from that document:

Existing webcams within developed areas could be upgraded to wireless, or new wireless webcams could be installed in developed areas of the park if they are found to meet the siting criteria adopted by this FONSI. No wireless webcams for visitor use will be installed within backcountry areas of the park. It is possible that wireless monitoring cameras could be placed in backcountry areas for resource monitoring or to address safety concerns, but these will not be available for public viewing purposes. (emphasis added.)

Park officials said Tuesday they had no existing plan or proposal to install backcountry webcams, but inserted the language in the document for flexibility down the road.

Should we be surprised by this development? After all, major cities line their streets with webcams, and in Utah and no doubt many other states the interstate highway corridors have webcams attached to light poles so authorities can keep an eye on traffic flows and watch for accidents. But on the other, have we really reached the point where we need to put webcams in the backcountry of the world's first and most-renowned national park "for resource monitoring or to address safety concerns..."?

Under the backcountry permitting process in Yellowstone, rangers know exactly where you're supposed to be ending every day and starting the next through assigned campsites. Every time I've traveled in the park's backcountry I've encountered a backcountry ranger just checking in to see that I am who I'm supposed to be and camped where I'm supposed to camp with the requisite paperwork.

And when you realize that roughly 80-90 percent or more of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres is backcountry, you begin to wonder how many webcams would be needed to provide a safety net for backpackers and hikers.

Has poaching, resource damage, or backcountry crime become such high-profile matters that the National Park Service feels the best way to respond to them and combat them is through the use of webcams? And really, if you're heading into the backcountry for nefarious reasons and not merely to enjoy the setting and experience, how likely is it that you're going to travel well-established trails that might one day be lined with webcams?

If you read the document (attached below), it states that a majority of those who commented on it "opposed adding webcams to the backcountry... (p. 16)'. One commenter, in fact, wrote that, "I vehemently oppose the physical presence of any technological devices in the backcountry, such as webcams or other. As a backcountry user, I would view the presence of physical technological devices in the backcountry as the greatest violation of my right to experience the level of solitude I seek from the park's backcountry."

The park's response was that, "Some wireless monitoring equipment could also be installed to help monitor wildfire, resources, and safety issues in an effort to reduce personnel costs. Webcams for public viewing would not be located in backcountry areas. Only administrative or research /monitoring related equipment would be allowed in these areas. The Telecommunications committee will use a minimum tool analysis to determine whether wireless monitoring equipment for research/monitoring purposes should be placed in backcountry areas."

But how, and even whether, personnel costs might be reduced through the use of webcams is impossible to say at this point. Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said Tuesday that no fiscal studies had been prepared in conjunction with the proposal. He also could not point to any specific examples of how webcams might be used in the backcountry, either for resource monitoring or to enhance visitor safety.

“There’s certainly the potential for research that could allow some kind of webcam use," Mr. Nash said. "We worked to make our wireless communications plan cover a breadth of technologies and have some kind of a lifespan. I know a great deal of the focus of some individuals was on cellular telephone service, but this was a much...once we got into the planning process, we felt it was appropriate to make this document more comprehensive.”

Mr. Nash could not speak to whether installation of backcountry webcams, which could be construed as a "non-conforming use" in officially designated wilderness, might preclude official wilderness designation for the park's backcountry in the future. There currently is no officially designated wilderness in the park.

At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade questioned the need for backcountry webcams.

"I could accept electronic monitoring equipment in remote areas for resource monitoring purposes, although I believe it would be inappropriate in wilderness except under temporary circumstances," Mr. Wade said. "I'm leery about their use in remote areas for safety reasons because of response time - and installing them may place an obligation on the NPS to respond in a timely fashion, something that might be difficult given current staffing levels, or be subject to greater liability under tort action. I also think there is a question about the cost and the reliability of this kind of equipment.

"One only has to look at the problems along the US-Mexican border with attempts to electronically monitor activity to get a sense of cost vs. reliability," he continued. "Given cost of installation and maintenance of equipment vs. reliability, I'm not sure it would save any money at all."

At the National Parks Conservation Association, Yellowstone program manager Patricia Dowd agreed with Mr. Wade's assessment, adding that, "If Yellowstone National Park is truly concerned about the safety of those in the backcountry, increasing staff (such as interpretation and law enforcement) is a much better route to take. Part-time or seasonal employees are a good investment. Providing education to people in the backcountry pays far greater returns than installing remote monitoring equipment."

Back at Yellowstone, Mr. Nash said that if anyone does propose to install backcountry webcams, the proposal "may require their own additional NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis.”


If there were webcams in the backcountry it wouldn't bother me because I don't do anything unlawful and if I were involved in an accident of some kind it would be helpful. We hardly notice the city webcams and shouldn't think to much about the backcountry ones. It does seem silly to put them way out in the woods and there must be better uses for the money.

Hey Kurt, thanks for continuing the discussion. I think with current trends in our national parks, which remain comparably safe to other areas of America but not without its struggles, we're going to need to have this debate. Yellowstone in that comprehensive plan raised the issue, so let's talk about it.

My follow up:

I seriously doubt that the goal of the webcams is law-enforcement, nor even that they are to watch humans.

Wire less and webcam technology are almost to the point that they can replace the old motion or heat triggered wildlife cameras. They're likely to be much smaller, as well as provide real time data without someone packing in to download and reset the cameras, more reliable, and cheaper.

If I were a backcountry manager at Yellowstone, I'd use the webcam data not only for monitoring wildlife abundances, but also for simple things like grizzly bears currently in the vicinity of some backcountry campsites, which I would either close for the couple of weeks or at least provide additional warnings to folks obtaining backcountry permits so that they might alter their plans. That's safety information.

That said, if I were a backcountry manager, I'd also have to consider the possibility of folks positively shifting their use toward locations with current bear or wolf activity, increasing the potential for harm to visitors but also to wildlife due to armed visitors being too bold and getting too close.

I'm glad I'm not a backcountry manager.

I'm wondering if there's a difference between fully designated wilderness and a place like Yellowstone where none of their backcountry has any wilderness designation. Would the webcams be considered a non-conforming use that wouldn't be allowed? Even in areas which are "potential wilderness", I understand that often only allows pre-existing non-conforming use to continue.

Hmm, webcams in the wilderness? Guess I'm old fashioned, but I really don't like the thought that Big Brother is watching in the last place you want to be watched. Also, how about those who like to run around in the altogether when out in the woods? Will the couple who get a bit romantic during a hike have to search around for a possible hidden candid camera before indulging their passions? Nope, don't like it.

I think they are finding a way to put webcams in the backcountry to help monitor thermal / volcanic activity changes after earthquakes

Well, anon, they already have a pretty good existing network of instrumentation throughout the park to monitor volcanic activity. As they explain at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, "There are permanent stations that monitor earthquakes, deformation, and hydrologic data in real-time."

And if that were truly the reason behind this option, why not simply come out and say that?

I don't see why it would be any different other than technological evolution from a fire watchtower [which was the visualized 'perfect job' I dreamt of when I came home from Korea 41 years ago, that I never realized].

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