Part 5 of a Series – see Series Introduction here
The Denali park road has always been fragile. I was struck at the DCC annual meeting by the descriptions given by long-time road crew folks like Brad Ebel and Jeff Craig of all the work it takes to maintain a gravel road deep into the wilderness. The road is always falling apart, the surface constantly eroding and being chewed away at the edges. Only the constant application of energy and new gravel keeps it drive-able. Heavier buses and higher traffic volumes accelerate the crumbling beyond historic norms.
Climate change has starkly revealed the fragility to those of us unaware or only casually aware of the heroic maintenance effort taking place in the background. Melting ice in places long-frozen is causing new problems for the structure of the road. Pretty Rocks is the most dramatic example, but agency reports outline dozens of potential problem areas along the road’s length. In context, the bridge under construction at Pretty Rocks is like a single stitch attempting to hold together a fraying garment that will continue to fall apart beyond the anchors of the sturdy new thread. And the anchors themselves are more fragile than the buttresses of other park bridges, requiring a technological fix to keep the ground frozen underneath. NPS now has committed at least $130 million to this one stitch in the fabric of the park road.
All human infrastructure is fragile and fleeting when viewed across geologic time spans, but the park road is fragile even when viewed over the course of a decade, or a year. I have long advocated for preserving the road’s historic character, and the opportunity to travel a primitive road into the heart of the Denali wilderness, which I personally value. However, the Pretty Rocks bridge is likely to be just one of an accelerating number of compromises to this historic feature, following on many accumulated prior compromises. Increasing numbers of stitches will be required in the future, threatening to turn the road corridor into a perpetual construction zone where it will be challenging for visitors to connect with either the wilderness or the wildlife they came to see. Arguably, some past seasons have already faced this challenge.
We must ask: can the historic park road and its associated visitor experience be sustained in an era of increased landscape change and increased visitor demand? There may be a fundamental mismatch between the historic road we have and the demands that modern traffic and climate place upon it.
Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to hold together the road across its entire length, perhaps we should instead think more expansively. Is there a different or better way for most visitors to experience Denali? Is there more robust infrastructure that we should spend those hundreds of millions of dollars on instead of the road? Should we recalibrate road usage to create a better match between the structure of the road and the number and weight of vehicles using it, keeping in mind the effects of a changing climate?
I fear that we are drifting into a future where we dribble increasing amounts of money into ever-more frequent construction projects to accommodate heavier traffic while the qualities that make the road special – the primitive feel, the immersion in a wilderness landscape, the proximate wildlife – all fade away amidst the hubbub. We need to get to a place where instead of just frantically putting in stitches to prevent the road from unraveling, we are actually knitting together something beautiful.
Charlie Loeb first came to Denali in 1988 as a volunteer interpretive ranger, and went on to manage the Denali branch of the Alaska Natural History Association (now Alaska Geographic), work as a NPS planner, and manage Talkeetna Community Radio among many other roles. He has served on the DCC board of directors since 2017 after a previous stint from 2011-2014.