Americans don't like to get out of their cars if they don't have to they can order food, pick up the their laundry or fill a prescription, all from the comfort of the driver's seat. Americans have come to expect that kind of easy access to their national parks as well, but those days may be numbered.
Traffic jams are now a summer staple in popular parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Smokey Mountains. Even with an annual budget of $165 million for road construction and maintenance, the National Park Service can't build new roads and parking spaces fast enough to accommodate the flood of cars clogging their highways.
At Zion National Park, the Park Service is experimenting with a mandatory shuttle service. From April through October, the height of tourist season, most areas of the park are closed to private automobiles. Bus stops have been installed at the most popular sites and propane powered shuttles cruise by about every six minutes. The small towns bordering the park agreed to provide additional parking.
Ranger Ron Terry is Zion's chief interpreter, says "one particular area of the park, the most popular area, is the Zion Canyon scenic drive. We had about 400 parking spaces available in Zion Canyon and we would get as many as 4,000 or 5,000 cars a day trying to find a parking space there. So the Park Service looked at ways to try to remedy that situation and we considered several alternatives and finally settled on a shuttle system and it's a mandatory system."
Ranger Terry says visitor surveys show it's also an overwhelmingly popular system. He notes that an enhanced park experience seems to outweigh any personal inconvenience. "We think it has brought back natural quiet to the canyon and many people comment about this," he says. "You no longer have the sounds of automobiles - honking horns and alarms going off and doors slamming and so on. We also found that wildlife has made a return to the canyon. It's very common to see deer, wild turkey, and we've had reports this year of mountain lion being sighted in the canyon."
While it's good to have the quiet and animals back at Zion, there have been a few less pleasant surprises; namely increased wear and tear on the park. Zion's resource biologist, Ranger Sharon Kim, is concerned about the impact of the additional visitors. "One thing that we're starting to wonder about now is 'What is that really doing for the various trails in the park?' Before they were very limited by the number of cars that were parked in any given parking lot for that particular trail. So, in some ways the park actually had a natural limiting force," she says. "Now, however, as long as there's room on the shuttle bus, you can get on."
By law, preservation must take precedence over recreation on national park property, but Ranger Kim doesn't see the two as mutually exclusive. "We're trying to balance them. Yes, the natural resources have precedence. However, we also want to encourage that people enjoy their national parks," she says. "And so, we want to make sure that people can enjoy it, but they're not going to be impacting the wildlife negatively."
One of Zion's most popular trails winds through a narrow river canyon and visitors spend much of their time actually walking in the water. Ranger Kim's team of resource biologists is conducting a study to determine what kind of impact all of those additional feet will have on the rare fish and plants living there.
While they continue to study the problem, the park service is looking to move beyond the shuttle bus to more innovative transportation. Lou Delorme, who leads the Park Service's transportation department from his office in Washington D. C., is thinking about vehicles so attractive there would be no need to make their use mandatory. "Is there a way we can develop a fleet of Park Service vehicles that people would be more anxious to get into," he says. "People, like at Disney World, they love the monorail. It's a different transportation system and it gets people into that transportation system because it is neat looking. So we're looking at providing them a different experience to get 'em out of their cars and maybe developing sexy park vehicles is the way to do that."
The park visitors I spoke to were perfectly happy with the simple shuttle busses now in use at Zion. Although Ted Folley, visiting from New Jersey, did have one suggestion. "If they had only thought to put a glass roof on these things when they ordered them, knowing that this corridor is so narrow and the heights, what you're looking at, are above the bus and out of your sight line. But the service is good," he says. "It's on time. You're not fighting other people about parking spaces and things like that. So we find it quite agreeable to our way of doing things."
Colleen Folley says they've visited other parks that she hopes will also consider some type of shuttle service. "We've been at Yosemite a year or two ago and at that time they were considering a shuttle. I don't know if they've already put it in, but they could definitely benefit from it," she says.
Mrs. Folley may get her wish. Ranger Lou Delorme says that 30 other national parks are preparing to add some type of shuttle service... although he isn't willing to say which parks or whether any of the new systems will be mandatory.