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Old Faithful Incident Broadcasts Controversy

By Ed O'Keefe

Two men are seen trespassing at Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park on May 4 in this image taken from a National Park Service Web cam. (Photo courtesy of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility)

The National Park Service has cited six men with illegal possession of park material, off-trail travel and public urination after an incident May 4 at Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The men, all employees of a park concessionaire, left the boardwalk near the geyser and two of the men urinated into or near the famed spout. Three have appeared before the park's federal magistrate judge with the other three set to appear soon.

Why might such an incident catch the Eye of a Washington Post reporter thousands of miles away? Because the incident was reported to park officials by someone watching Old Faithful on a live Web cam. The park has five Web cams -- four static and one live -- providing uninterrupted vistas of the park for anyone seeking a look at one of the nation's most popular national parks.

This impressive act of voyeuristic vigilance has raised concerns with a government employee group that warns the cameras could signal the future of national park security.

"We’re on the threshold of cyber parks. This kind of use could dramatically expand and it has implications that I don’t think the Park Service has yet to grapple with," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an outspoken national alliance of local, state and federal resource and environmental professionals.

Ruch suggested that web cams might depress visitation at national parks, because "If you can watch it 24/7 from your living room, do you need to go there?" The cameras might also eventually lead the Park Service to cut back on the work hours of park rangers.

The group is especially concerned since Yellowstone recently began implementing a new wireless communication plan that expands cell phone and Wi-Fi access in certain areas of the park and leaves open the door to the future use of Web cams.

Park officials insist however that the new plan has nothing to do with cameras.

"We’re not wiring Yellowstone to set up a bank of cameras. That’s not our mission. It’s not what we do," said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash. He called last week's incident an interesting anomaly that has no impact on plans to provide better cell phone service near most of the park's hotels and restaurants. The improvements will allow the Park Service plans to make better use of two-way radios, earthquake-monitoring technology and remote weather stations.

And perhaps most crucially for visitors, "If you go hike out into the back country in Yellowstone, you shouldn’t be counting on calling rangers on your cell phone for help, because you’re not going to have service," Nash said.

Interestingly, Yellowstone staff also cannot record and archive Web cam footage, even though private individuals can, including the person who reported the May 4 incident and later provided images of it to PEER.

No matter the benefits or their potential impact on park staff, Ruch hopes the Park Service will puts the lens cap over future web cam plans.

“It’s not like you want to cover the national parks with Web cams," Ruch said. "As we’ve experienced with the web cams here in the District, they’ve been a bust. They haven’t worked."

The comments below sections awaits your thoughts.

By Ed O'Keefe  | May 14, 2009; 11:22 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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If people are content to see the park by camera that is their loss as well as their gain. And everyone who goes in person gains as well, since it means fewer visitors jostling you.

Posted by: ah___ | May 14, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

There is a larger issue here. Big brother. The virtual fence between the U. S. and Mexico could be put on the Internet, and then imagine sites with web cams posted at high automobile accidents locations. People may watch the sites waiting to see tragedy, or crime. There is no reaosn these would necessarily be government owned web cams and broadcasts; anyone could do this and sell advertising, a new kind of reality television. The concept of privacy, or even the seclusion a national park once provided is being lost rapidly. Mark John Hunter - Alpena

Posted by: DrMarkJohnHunter | May 15, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

The cameras in place at Old Faithful allow many people and those who are handicapped and unable to personally visit the park [and others] to see Old Faithful from afar.
The cameras could also serve as a deterrent to those planning graffiti or other serious damage to the facility.

Posted by: duke99 | May 15, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

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