Part 6 of a Series – see Series Introduction here
When I arrived at Denali in 1971, the National Park Service was already preparing for the opening of the George Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Prior to that, access to the park was mostly by rail and private vehicles were rare. In 1972, with increased highway access a certainty, NPS instituted a public transit system while closing the Denali Park Road to most private vehicles. For 20+ years, the NPS-provided Shuttle bus was virtually free. In 1994, NPS granted the authority to operate this Shuttle (Transit) system to the park concessioner. It became a paid service, not terribly expensive, but no longer free. Over time, however, the ticket price increased and pressure to reduce Transit buses in favor of Tour buses continued.
During those years and up until the present, DCC continued to advocate for inexpensive access along our wonderful park road, with limits to protect resources. Now, we are facing the tough realization that this wonderful road is suffering. Breaking. Falling apart. Doomed, perhaps. Our attachment to inexpensive access at Denali is now under a complete re-examination.
What we know is this. The park road was primitive from its creation, a corduroy road, a cut into the tundra, a gravel corridor with insufficient gravel, gradually narrowing. It was only through herculean efforts by the road crew since the 1990s, applying geotextile and layers of gravel, that the road lasted, retained its unique character, and even gave a better ride. But, the push of tourism took advantage and placed larger and heavier buses on the road. Numbers of buses increased over the years. Established numerical limits on vehicle traffic were eliminated and replaced with a squishy adaptive management system. Denali was, to so many, the goose that laid the golden egg of tourism. DCC fought the thoughtless increasing of vehicle numbers on the road and suggested other ways to manage for limits, but the 2012 Vehicle Management Plan (VMP) paid only lip service to the need for limits that actually protected resources. This I regret.
Where are we now? Perhaps, now that the road closure at Mile 43 is projected to last until 2026, there will be time to rethink vehicle management at Denali. There are many questions. How will we maintain inexpensive public access while reducing the pressure of many buses on the road? How will we keep the road safe and the drivers well trained? Should we consider how the pounding of heavy bus tires affects this wounded roadway? Should we amend the VMP with updated standards for resource protection? In the end, I fear that we will fail to use this opportunity to address Denali’s profound vehicle management challenges. At the same time, I must hope that we can help make a difference during this crucial time, for the future of our beautiful and fragile park.
Nancy Bale worked at Denali National Park for over 20 summers and joined the DCC board in 1997, helping guide our organization through major changes in park visitation and management. Although optimistic by nature, she’s worried about the future of the Denali region. Currently, she is a school nurse in Anchorage.