Glacier National Park in spring presents a delightful bouquet of diversity, both in its critter and human populations. This past weekend, the Going-to-the-Sun road was chock full of walkers and cyclists, senior citizens passing on rumors of grizzly bear sightings to wide-eyed children, who in turn point out the clown-faced harlequin ducks and water ouzels on McDonald Creek.
All of this was possible only because the river-hugging road was closed to vehicles. In the spring, the park belongs to pedestrians. In the summer, it belongs to cars.
As I rode my bike up the road with family and friends, my mind kept sneaking back to Zion National Park, where I worked as a park ranger in mid-1980s. I silently celebrated the news that Zion Canyon Road would be closed to private vehicles starting this month.
Zion summers once belonged to cars rather than people, as well. In 1984, I was the young Smoky Bear dude who took your money, gave you a map and directed you to the closest restroom. In the summer, Zion canyon was choked with grumpy motorists searching for a place to park.
This place is too beautiful to be dominated by cars, I suggested to anyone who would listen. Bicycles and shoe leather and shuttle buses were the ticket. My colleagues humored me as a silly dreamer. The public is joined at the hip with their cars, they said. In conservative Utah, my idea smacked of anti-Americanism.
I haven’t been back to Zion since 1984, but I hear visitation has doubled. And now a silly dream has turned into reality. From May 23 to October 31, Zion Canyon is closed to cars. In their place will be bicycles and shuttle buses, powered by propane, no less. During peak hours, buses will depart every six minutes from two central parking lots. Passengers can get on and off the bus as often as they like.
If it can happen in southern Utah, it can happen in western Montana. So here’s another silly dream, though with a different twist.
Suppose that in the summer months, when Glacier Park’s pavement is bursting at the seams, the Park Service initiates a market-driven system to reduce traffic. If you want to drive your own car, you pay an extra $10 or $20 for the privilege. Then Glacier would apply those petrodollars to help pay for an efficient shuttle bus system, complete with a natural history guide as driver. If you park and shuttle, your entrance fee is a fraction of the car tax.
Typically, taxpayers subsidize private vehicles in our national parks (though Alaska’s Denali and Washington’s North Cascade parks have long had efficient shuttle systems). In recent years, Glacier has spent millions to accommodate ever-growing traffic levels. A major upgrade of the Logan Pass parking lot a few years ago already is for naught, as frustrated motorists again search in vain for an empty parking space. Last year, the park lost a lawsuit over its plans to cut ancient cedar at Avalanche Creek to expand parking. Cyclists are second-class citizens, and are banned altogether from the Sun road during heavy traffic periods.
Why not reverse the subsidy and the preference? As park visitors in Zion will discover this summer, reducing or eliminating private cars during busy periods will improve the quality of experience for everyone.
It’s a lesson the National Park Service has learned slowly but surely. America’s secular god is the internal combustion engine, and the Park Service kneeled at that altar with the best of them. But as Americans have wearied of overcrowded freeways, urban sprawl and road rage, they are dismayed to find the same bane in their public parks.
As a result, the Park Service has moved aggressively to curtail commercial helicopter tours over the parks. It has eliminated jet skis throughout the system. And the agency has recently banned snowmobiles in most parks. The greatest achievements on this front are Zion’s auto ban and the pending decision to eliminate snowmobiles from Yellowstone. The national parks will no longer be a temple of the gas engine.
The smiling faces of neighbors and strangers will soon disappear from the Going-to-the-Sun road. It’s almost time for the foot-powered people to give up their spring in the McDonald Creek valley. The cars will reign supreme as soon as the plows clear Logan Pass of snow.
But that doesn’t have to be the storyline forever. A congressionally mandated citizens advisory committee is working with park officials to determine the most efficient way to repair the Going-to-the-Sun Highway and plan future transportation needs. Some committee members undoubtedly want to widen the road and expand parking. A better solution is to simply reduce the traffic and give people a better choice.