The bogusity of the New York Times' story about how technology leads more national park visitors into trouble.

Media criticism.
Aug. 23 2010 6:09 PM

The Times Gets Lost in the National Parks

The bogusity of the New York Times' story about how technology leads more park visitors into trouble.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

In the 11th paragraph of its Page One, Aug. 22 story about how technology—cell phones, GPS devices, satellite-location devices, and even video cameras—tends to get visitors to the national parks into trouble, the New York Times confesses the inherent bogusity of its premise, stating:

The National Park Service does not keep track of what percentage of its search and rescue missions, which have been climbing for the last five years and topped 3,500 in 2009, are technology related. But in an effort to home in on "contributing factors" to park accidents, the service recently felt compelled to add "inattention to surroundings" to more old-fashioned causes like "darkness" and "animals." [Emphasis added.]

Yet the newspaper persists in advancing its techno-made-the-visitors-get-in-trouble thesis, headlining the piece "For Parkgoers Pushing Luck, Technology and Trouble Got Together" in print and "Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble" online.

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To buttress the bogus headlines, the Times stacks a bunch of anecdotes about how park visitors have gotten injured, lost, or killed while using technology. The Times tells us about a park visitor who gets gored while videotaping a buffalo; about a picture-taker who falls 75 feet because he was backing up at the Grand Canyon as he took pictures; about a lost hiker who cell-phones in a request for hot chocolate to park rangers; about a group of hikers who press the emergency button on their satellite-location device repeatedly, one time doing so to inform park rangers that their water "tasted salty"; and about a pair of novice whitewater-rafters who drowned after building a log raft and attempting to videotape their voyage down the Virgin River as an entry in a Man vs. Wild TV competition. The men had little camping experience, not much food, and no overnight gear.

Before we visit the data, let's pulverize a couple of the Times' anecdotes. How can you pin even anecdotal blame on camera technology for a real or imagined uptick in park incidents? Reckless photographers have been visiting America's great outdoors clicking their Brownie cameras in the faces of wild animals since before the NPS was created in 1916. To blame the goring of a park visitor or a fall from a cliff on technology is a huge stretch. Likewise with the videographers who killed themselves on the Virgin River. The Times might as well blame park problems on the automobile.

And now on to the data. The Times makes a big deal about the number of search-and-rescue missions conducted by the NPS, reporting that the figures "have been climbing for the last five years and topped 3,500 in 2009."

Not precisely. The numbers, provided to me by the NPS, have been bouncing up and down. In 2004, the NPS conducted 3,216 search-and-rescue operations. In 2005, the number went down to 2,430 operations. In 2006, it rose to 3,623 operations. In 2007, it declined to 3,593 operations, and in 2008 declined again to 3,481. In 2009, the number rose to 3,593.

Search and rescue graph.
Search-and-rescue operations in the National Parks have not, in fact, increased steadily in recent years.

Search-and-rescue operations conducted between 1992 and 2009 actually peaked at 5,761 in 1998, according to the NPS. Over that same period, the average number of annual search-and-rescue missions was 4,027, which means that the figure the Times ended up ballyhooing ("topped 3,500") is below the 18-year average.

In other words, there has been no dramatic increase in the number of NPS search-and-rescue operations in the era of the mobile phone, the satellite phone, GPS, and the emergency beacon. Technology isn't leading more park visitors into trouble.

My thinking on this issue is informed by two 2009 papers: "Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in US National Parks" (PDF), by Travis W. Heggie and Michael E. Amundson and published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, and "Search and Rescue Trends Associated With Recreational Travel in US National Parks," by Travis W. Heggie and Tracey M. Heggie, published in the Journal of Travel Medicine.

Heggie and Amundson chart the long-term NPS search-and-rescue trends, while Heggie and Heggie put a microscope to search-and-rescue operations conducted by the NPS from 2003 to 2006. Heggie and Heggie advocate preventive education for the most frequent clients of search-and-rescue services. According to their study, almost half of those requesting search-and-rescue were weekenders; visitors ages 20 to 29 years made up 23 percent of incidents in the study; and males (no surprise!) were the requesters in 66.3 percent of incidents. Day hikers, boaters, and swimmers were the most frequent classes of requesters, and it's my sense that many of the crises they faced were self-made and could have been averted by securing the right equipment, the right clothing, the right training, and better provisions, and by applying a little common sense.

Similar instructions—minus the ones about clothing and provisions—could have rescued the Times from publishing this bogus story.

******

Alan Stamm, Phil Roberts, Brian Davidson, Kristopher Taylor-Kloke, and others demanded that I put this bogus story's head on a pike. I take orders (no cell calls, please) at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. When I get in trouble, I use Twitter to summon help. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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