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Moving Past the Transportation Gridlocks in Our National Parks

To reduce the impact of vehicles on our parks, we need to make them accessible via public transit

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

As the train snakes along the inner Bay, I relax into my Amtrak seat and settle into that euphoric feeling I have every time I leave the city and aim for the mountains.

Looking out the viewing car window, I already see fewer marks of industrial development (refineries and highways) and more signs of rural California (blue herons and citrus orchards).  In a couple hours I'll transfer to the YARTS bus (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) in Merced, which will take me right to the heart of Yosemite Valley. I don't have to worry about driving or fighting the get-the-hell-out-of-the-city traffic snarl. Instead, I enjoy the view, sip a mid-afternoon wine, and study trail maps. Once I arrive, the park entrance fee is included in the fare, and I take the electric-hybrid Yosemite Shuttle to many of the trailheads and attractions on the Valley floor.

My combined train-bus trip saved at least one car from contributing to gridlock in the Valley. Most people I tell about this way of traveling to and in Yosemite had not heard of it and I suspect that is common. As the National Park Service enters its second century, it made me consider: What is the impact of millions of vehicles on our nation’s “best idea” and how does it compromise our experience of these grand places? What is being done to minimize auto traffic in national parks? Which parks are accessible via alternative transportation?

photo of Grand Canyon National Park South Entrance with Carsphoto by Grand Canyon National Park Cars wait to enter Grand Canyon National Park. In 2015, more than 300 million people visited national parks, most using personal vehicles.

During my last trip to Yosemite during summer for a volunteer activity, there were times when it was a literally a traffic jam on the Valley floor. I might as well have been on I-80. No doubt being able to view Half Dome was a saving grace.  

But still….I wanted to join Edward Abbey in his famous rant towards the end of Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness:

“No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs—anything – but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.”

Amen.

Though I doubt I will commute by wild pig any time soon, national parks and wilderness areas are sacred places to me, and millions of others as well. But I also know we are long past any consideration of keeping cars out. To Abbey, even my preferred mode of transportation — bus and shuttles — were personas non grata as ‘motorized relatives.’

Abbey penned this indictment in the late ‘60s. Yet automobiles made their appearance not long after national parks caught the imagination of the American public. Since the 1920s, Americans have traveled in droves to national parks. As an example, the first car entered Yosemite in 1900, though it wasn't until 1913 when cars were officially allowed. That marked the beginning of a steady upward tick in visitors, from tens of thousands annually in the 1910s to hundreds of thousands in the 1920s to 1940s. The one million mark was reached already by the ‘50s and last year more than four million visited Yosemite, mostly by personal car or RV, with all the attendant impacts. The once wild one-by-seven-mile Yosemite Valley floor now features 17 acres of parking lots with 6,067 spaces that can accommodate a peak of 20,100 visitors per day!

It has been the paradox of the national park movement from its inception: If you preserve parks for everybody, then everybody will come. If you make them accessible via roads (Yosemite alone has 214 miles) and hotels and stores (Yosemite has more than 1,100 buildings), how much has nature in fact been transformed into the very thing from which you are seeking respite?  

It is as much a practical question as a philosophical inquiry.

In 2015, more than 300 million people visited national parks and most of those visits were in personal vehicles. The number has been steadily climbing in the past decade and the NPS expects that trajectory to continue. Consider the impacts that millions of vehicles have:

First and foremost, cars require roads and parking spaces. The National Park System contains 5,500 miles of paved roads, 4,100 miles of unpaved roads, 1,442 bridges, and 63 tunnels. All this requires disruption of ecosystems, from trees and soil to waterways and the species that depend upon them. And road planners often don’t consider migratory patterns of wildlife into account when plotting pavement.

Second, vehicles bring air pollution. We go to country and mountains in part to get fresh air and great views, right? But each vehicle that rolls in brings its exhaust, adding to the collective pool of CO2, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and particular matter. Electric vehicles get a pass on this front, but they are still a small percentage of visitors. Unfortunately, the pollution increasingly plaguing national parks is not just from tailpipes of vehicles, but also from urban and agricultural areas, making it clear that solutions for urban areas and wilderness areas are intimately connected.

A study released last summer by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) showed that air in some of the country's most popular parks is compromised, some dangerously so. Seventy-five percent of the 48 iconic national parks studied have air quality that’s unhealthy at times. Four of my favorite parks in California — Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Joshua Tree — all received an “F” on their report cards in the Healthy Air category. Increased air pollution means those stunning, panoramic views are compromised. On average, air pollution obstructs fifty miles from view, according to the same NPCA report.

Third, cars kill and maim. Collisions with wildlife are not infrequent. Bears, foxes, coyote, elk, deer, etc. are all victims of the automobile. At some visitor’s centers or campgrounds you will see something like this posted: “Number of collisions with bears so far this year = 4.” In Yosemite, an average of a dozen black bears are killed in auto accidents annually, and many more hit and hurt. Last year, 34 bears were hit by cars and 25 bears were hit the previous year (300 since 1995, according to a PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility report). In 1997, Yosemite began a public education campaign called “Red Bear, Dead Bear” about bear-vehicle collisions, advocating awareness and slower driving with strategically placed signage.

In Yellowstone, about 95 animals (including elk, moose, bears, wolves, and bison) on average are killed in collisions each year.  In Grant Teton National Park, an average of 115-120 animals have been killed in auto accidents annually since 2008. Are these the inevitable consequence of humans and wildlife sharing space, or are there better ways of reducing such incidents?

In addition, more people equals more easy food which means more bear and other wildlife contact with humans, which leads to killing more bears in the name of public safety. Such incidents are being reduced, though not eliminated, with public education about proper food storage. Bears breaking into cars are in part the result of them becoming habituated to humans and their treats, but to me it also seems like the wild’s act of revenge on this symbol of American mobility.

Another underrated but significant consequence of bringing civilization to the national parks is noise pollution. What do people want to hear: the rush of the waterfall or a car alarm? The gurgle of the river or the breaks of the bus? The hoot of the owl or the beep of the truck in reverse? The quiet of the meadow, or the whoosh of traffic? Case closed. In a twenty-first century world where silence and natural sounds are increasingly rare commodities, where can we go to find it, if not the great outdoors?

Another thrust from the Abbey’s pen targets what is really at stake here:

“Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”

For example, what does it mean to “have been” to Yosemite, when one ventures no more than 50 yards from the comfort of the driver’s seat? No more than 500 yards from the burger joint or visitor’s center? When Yosemite Falls serves as a backdrop for a selfie on your way out of the valley?  Yosemite National Park has nearly 750,000 acres (fortunately, most of that is federally-designated wilderness) and has more than 800 miles of trails, but the vast majority of visitors get no further than half a mile from pavement and stick to the valley floor.

Of what are we depriving ourselves?

I’m not an Abbey-level curmudgeon by a long shot, but I know for me, experiencing communion with nature means leaving behind certain “comforts” to some extent and for some period of time. Get clear of earshot and eye-shot of civilization. If you can still hear the traffic, the dump trucks, smell French fries or diesel, you just might not have “been to” Yosemite.

The very achievement of a goal central to the National Park System — connect more people to our splendid natural heritage — contributes to the degradation of that experience by the overwhelming crush of humanity and all its accouterments.

The biggest strides towards mitigating the damage done by excessive vehicle traffic are the in-park shuttle systems and alternative modes of transportation, both voluntary and mandatory. Yosemite’s hybrid shuttle is wonderful example, looping around the valley every hour. It’s even possible to catch a shuttle up to Tuolumne Meadows in the summer time, and the YARTS bus allows you to connect from the west to the east side of the Sierra range.

In its transportation planning over the past decade, the NPS has for the most part not been building more or expanding roads, but rather expanding its alternative modes of transportation.

According to its website, the NPS operates 121 alternative transportation systems in 63 parks nationwide. Half of those are shuttle, bus, van, or tram and 29 percent are boats/ferries. The remainder is planes, snowcoaches, trains or trollies. Nearly 60 percent of NPS-owned vehicles operate on alternative fuels (propane and compressed natural gas or diesel/electric hybrid), helping to mitigate emissions.

Zion National Park is a good example of recognizing the problems and implementing solutions. It became clear in the 1990's, when annual visitation reached more than 2 million and more than 5,000 vehicles drove on Scenic Drive daily, that forward-thinking solutions were needed.  They inaugurated a mandatory shuttle system, which has been operating since 2000. With the exception of employees, only the park's shuttle bus is allowed to north of the Zion Canyon Visitor Center during the peak summer season.

Grand Canyon's shuttle system began operating in 1974 as a voluntary shuttle system to reduce congestion on the South Rim; it now accommodates around 4.5 million visitors annually. The fleet will soon be 100 percent compressed natural gas, keeping tons of hydrocarbons and particulates out of the air, and are wheel-chair accessible.

But one still has to get to the parks.

The reality is that only a few national parks are accessible via train and a few more by bus. Often you will get a message similar to this if you try to Google Map it: “Sorry, we could not calculate transit directions from "Los Angeles, CA" to "Joshua Tree National Park, California." Imagine a world where there were clear options for every national park. (For the record, according to a local source, you can theoretically get to Joshua Tree via public transit by taking a bus to Palm Springs, linking up with the Morongo Basin Transit Authority to go to the town of Twenty-Nine Palms, then walking, biking, or hitching in from there.)

The parks that I have experienced and enjoyed via train and bus are Yosemite, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Olympic National Park. You can take Amtrak to Visalia, CA and catch a shuttle into Sequoia Park. You can reach Glacier National Park via Amtrak, with stops at West Glacier and East Glacier. Glacier National Park offers a free shuttle, to visitors along the Going to the Sun Highway that cuts through the park.

One example of a NPS unit that is not only served by train, but where trains are a significant part of the park’s cultural history, is the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway. The train snakes its way along a 16-mile round trip into the Daniel Boone National Forest and Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. It’s one of those itineraries where that overused word “charming” may well be justified.

You can get close to the North Cascades and Olympic National Parks via county bus systems. Yellowstone, one of the parks most in need of traffic reduction, has no alternate transit system, unless you count private bus touring options. In fact, neither Amtrak nor Greyhound serves Jackson Hole, the gateway to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. I learned that two summers ago attempting to arrive sans automobile. I took a private shared shuttle from Salt Lake City, then hitch-hiked into both parks. Needless to say, that is not going to be a wildly popular option for the vast majority of visitors.

The National Park Service’s The Call to Action Document outlines actions being taking to create a twenty-first century park system that reflects new values and needs. One initiative in there, called “In My Back Yard,” is encouraging visitation of national parks closer to where people live and getting their in more sustainable ways.

For example, a goal for Rocky Mountain National Park is to create uninterrupted trails and transportation linkages connecting the Denver Metro area, Rocky Mountain National Park, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Two Ponds NWR, Rocky Flats NWR, and the community trails systems in between. The NPS is working with cities, nonprofits, and private partners in the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area to create a seamless alternative transportation system that connects people in Minneapolis and St. Paul to their parks, trails, and community green spaces along the River.

It is unrealistic to expect visitors to renounce their personal vehicles for exploring national parks unless there are enough viable options that would make it easy for them to go car-less. A practical planning goal would be to have more options to arrive at national park visitor’s centers or entrances by train or bus or bicycle (or wild pig?), or even personal vehicle, then connect to the park system’s emissions-free shuttle. Then make that information widely and easily available to the public.

In the meantime, I will be continuing to explore ways to get to those places without a car. And yes, sometimes I will arrive in a friend’s car, and when sitting in congestion ogling the peaks and waterfalls through the window, I will be dreaming of a day when we find a better balance between access and comfort on the one hand and what we seek out there in the first place: beauty, quiet, “escape from stress and turmoil,” and dare I say it, the sacred.

Ryan Van Lenning
Ryan Van Lenning is a writer, communications consultant, and aspiring wilderness guide/ecotherapist in California.

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