Denali Citizens Council board members had a chance to teleconference with Denali’s Acting Superintendent Denice Swanke to discuss current plans for the summer season and other topics on Friday, May 8. In the era of COVID-19, the National Park Service is still scrambling to figure out how to have summer operations that are safe for visitors and employees, and thinking about ways to be accommodate Alaskan visitors who for the first time in decades (or ever?) are likely represent the bulk of the park’s visitation.
Most notably, NPS is investigating alternative means for visitors to travel the park road this summer. Without cruise ship passengers, the tour buses will have many fewer customers. NPS expects to have at most one tour offering rather than the usual three (Tundra Wilderness Tour, Natural History Tour, and Kantishna Experience). NPS also intends to offer some amount of transit and camper buses, but the numbers and schedules are yet to be determined. Unexpectedly, NPS is looking at providing some smaller-vehicle options, including offering a Commercial Use Authorization that would allow guided groups of rental vehicles to travel the road (picture something like the Stampede jeep tours, only on the park road). NPS is also looking at additional road-lottery-type events on alternate weekends in July and August, allowing a limited number of people to drive their own vehicles. The post-season fall road lottery will occur as usual, but with applications accepted in June instead of May.
As of our meeting, none of these options had been finalized except the fall road lottery, but with summer looming a plan will have to be completed soon. Swanke said NPS will adhere to the constraints and standards in the Vehicle Management Plan, but feels all of the options it is looking at will be consistent with the plan. The agency expects no more than about 90 vehicles per day on the road.
DCC expressed several concerns about these new transportation options for the park road, and has sent a follow-up letter which you can read by clicking on the linked PDF file at the bottom of this post.
In other tidbits, NPS is planning to open some park campgrounds, but which ones and opening dates are yet to be determined. Campgrounds must be managed to conform to state health guidelines including rules around site-spacing, which may mean some sites may be left empty to provide mandated buffering. The agency also needs enough capacity to adhere to state guidelines for restroom cleaning and sanitizing, which it presently cannot meet.
NPS will not be hiring many of its usual seasonal employees, and will not have any from the lower 48 except for those already on staff in the mountaineering and wildland fire programs. We also talked briefly about the Pretty Rocks landslide. A contractor recently finished repairing the road for the summer season and NPS is anticipating that the road will be operational for the summer with road crew maintenance. Longer term, the Federal Highways Administration has assembled a panel of experts to develop information and recommendations for a permanent solution. The panel is expected to complete its work in July, at which time FHWA will report back to the park. NPS will use the information and recommendations to develop a plan, presumably one with some alternatives and an environmental analysis. Board members asked Superintendent Swanke to publish information about the panel’s work, to provide some clarity about the NPS process and ongoing work.