The other night, my neighbor had a campfire in his backyard. The smell of the wood smoke transported me instantly to memories of camping in the national parks, far from the lights of the city, away from the concrete jungle, and clear of belching buses. But my memories are fast becoming outdated. Buses, in the form of park shuttles, are becoming a standard as some parks work to solve a problem created when there are more cars than there are spaces to accommodate them.
The addition of buses is certainly a good idea, at least when compared to the old solution of adding larger parking lots inside of pristine park lands. But, having ridden the bus my whole life, first for school then for work, there is a part of me that bristles at the idea of having to ride a bus on my vacation too. The big parks extend an invitation to adventure, to roam where there are no fences, to explore where there are few markers. Riding a bus is not nearly as romantic an adventure.
But, I may be missing the point. In the year 2000, Zion National Park introduced a shuttle system along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, a route in which private vehicles are now prohibited. The shuttles are propane powered, have nine stops in the park, and run every seven minutes during daylight hours. The Park Service estimates the use of shuttles in Zion has reduced CO2 emissions by twelve tons a day. With the shuttle, Zion has created a better park experience; fewer cars, less pollution from exhaust, less noise pollution, and less stress -- if you've ever had to circle a parking lot over and over looking for an empty spot, you'll know what I mean by less stress.
The topic of cars and parks was addressed in one of my favorite park books back in 1968. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey writes that parks should be free of cars. Without cars, he suggests, transportation through the parks would be by foot, on bicycle, and on horse. It turns out that Abbey's prediction was somewhat accurate. In Zion, because there are far fewer vehicles to worry about, bicycling the canyon has turned into a popular activity. Zion shuttles even include bike racks. And don't worry if you didn't pack along your bicycle, the nearby town of Springdale has them available to rent.
Abbey had also predicted that a shuttle system would be useful for transporting people between distant parking lots. A friend of mine is already excited for this possibility in Glacier National Park, which is introducing for the first time a shuttle system this month. Glacier's system of three interconnected lines stretch west to east across the park, over Logan Pass. My friend has noticed that it would be possible to hike up the north side of Lake McDonald, a distance of about 10 miles one way, and then complete the loop by catching a shuttle back to the Apgar Visitor Center. I for one look forward to the day I can enjoy the Going-to-the-Sun Road without having to keep my eyes glued to the twisting, skinny, two-lane highway.
Even with their many benefits, shuttle systems need to be protected against forces of privatization. If you've ridden a bus in a city, you'll know that as a captive audience, advertisers work aggressively to capture your attention with billboards and placards all over the place. You've probably noticed too, coffee shops and magazine stands available to you before you board the bus, and waiting your arrival once you step off. This may work in the city, but parks are not intended to be privatized profit centers. I have worried that these shuttle systems could encapsulate the park experience -- park here, board bus there, grab a postcard at the visitor center, and then, back to the car -- but, I suppose that's how some folks experience the parks even now with the benefit of their cars. Because shuttles provide such a benefit to parks, they should be the preferred transportation option and should be free of additional charges. Some have been bothered that the concessionaire run "Visitor Transportation System" in Denali runs up to $43 per person.
Instead of restricting freedom and access to our parks, the park shuttle systems in place today extend the ways to enjoy our public lands. My initial negative reaction to the buses is probably selfish considering the many positive benefits the shuttles bring to the park experience. The next time campfire smoke takes me back to memories of the parks, I will think good thoughts of the shuttle systems which are preserving a spirit of adventure for the generations of park visitors to come.
Jeremy Sullivan leads the multimedia focus for the blog www.nationalparkstraveler.com, a community driven site with a daily splash of news and notes on our National Parks.
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