On the day Dick McClain and his wife, Pam, arrived in Hyde Memorial State Park for a four-day stay, the Leadville, Colo., couple learned McClain’s mother had died.

He had a cellphone, so if he was standing in just the right place in the park, McClain could receive text messages from family members about his mother, who had lived a good, long life, he said. But he wished he had full access to the internet, given the situation.

“Wi-Fi in the state parks is a good idea,” he said Wednesday afternoon — a day after his mother’s death and the couple’s arrival in Santa Fe — as they finished up their lunch at Hyde Park. “We had to drive back into town to reach people yesterday.”

Internet access, he said, “opens up a lot of options and gives people who need to be connected the chance to be connected.”

Actually, McClain was about 40 paces away from a pay-for-play internet hot spot.

A state contractor has installed paid Wi-Fi service in the central ranger station and visitors center at Hyde Memorial State Park as part of a plan by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to offer the service in up to 17 of the 34 state parks in New Mexico by February.

The state is not paying for the service. The contractor, Viasat Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., will profit from the fees users pay to access the internet at state park hot spots. Those rates range from $3 per hour for a single user to $8 per day, or up to $50 for a family to use the service for up to 30 days.

So far, along with Hyde park, Viasat has installed paid Wi-Fi at Elephant Butte Lake State Park and the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. Next in line are Ute Lake State Park and Navajo Lake State Park.

Under a five-year contract between the state and Viasat, the company eventually will install paid Wi-Fi at all state parks, said David Certain, chief of the Program Support Bureau of New Mexico State Parks.

“We’re really encouraging people to plug into nature and only use Wi-Fi for emergencies,” Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said of the initiative. Park patrons will be able to use the internet to pay camping fees and make reservations for campsites, which in turn will cut down on manpower hours needed to deal with cash transactions, she added.

Though some outdoor enthusiasts might question why anyone would want to plug in to the internet while they’re out enjoying nature, the state initiative is not a new idea. According to the National Park Service’s website, Wi-Fi already is available in more than 140 of the 400-plus national parks around the nation.

Certain said park patrons have told rangers they would like Wi-Fi access “for business purposes, for entertainment, for safety considerations.”

People in the U.S. appear to be finding it more difficult to avoid such distractions.

A 2017 study conducted by the public relations and marketing firm DJ Case and Associates, in a joint effort with state and federal wildlife and park agencies, found Americans are growing less connected with nature, largely due to the increasing use of computers, smartphones and other technology.

“It is increasingly normal to spend little time outside,” the report said.

Several people camping in Hyde Memorial State Park and in the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest — which does not provide Wi-Fi service — said they like the option of plugging in a laptop to check email, connect with friends, stream a movie or do some online research while they spend time in the wild.

Lynne Pecot of Oregon, who was reading a book called Bay of Sighs at a campsite, said, “We’re basically living in our RV, so having Wi-Fi wherever we are would be nice.”

At a nearby national forest campsite, Phil Lancaster of Texas played his banjo while his dog, Honey, kept a watchful eye on the site, strewn with the makings for coffee, fruit, an ax, firewood and a fire pit ready to be stoked up for cooking.

“You don’t need Wi-Fi everywhere,” Lancaster said.

Still, he said, as a professional musician and educator, he wouldn’t mind adding a laptop to the inventory, particularly as he and his partner, Alison Moore, travel the country to perform musical education pieces for students.

“I’m not against it being out in nature,” he said of internet access. “I know when to turn it off.”

Not everyone was in agreement. A man who gave only his first name, Dave, said, “I come out here to get away from all that stuff.”

Certain said a handful of state parks, including Elephant Butte Lake, previously had free Wi-Fi service, but the new pay-rate system will replace that.

Viasat contractors will install Wi-Fi in park areas where “visitors congregate or camp or stay for a period of time that would make it likely they would want to use Wi-Fi,” which means it will not necessarily be available everywhere within any one park.

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General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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