Last year, there were nearly 300 million visits to the U.S. national parks. Of course, we should celebrate this, because public appreciation of parks is vital to their ultimate protection. But we can’t escape the irony of the infrastructure needed to serve such large numbers of visitors. This development can eventually threaten the integrity of park resources and the quality of visitors’ experiences. There may be no better (or worse) manifestation of this issue than parking lots. Conventionally, visitors need a place to park their cars, but this requires precious park land be converted into parking lots. Sometimes this happens to seemingly self-defeating proportions. A recent study conducted for the National Park Service counted 1,662 official parking spaces in Yosemite Valley alone. Yosemite National Parking Lot? The National Parking Service?
But this is changing. In 1997, in a remarkable act of coordination among federal programs, the secretaries of the Departments of Interior and Transportation signed a memorandum of understanding outlining how transportation at national parks and other public lands could be improved. Congress has since passed significant legislation that has enabled planning and funding of “alternative transportation” and “intelligent transportation” in national parks and related public lands.
No one needs to tell hikers about the benefits of “alternative transportation.” We live it by definition. Hiking is our own form of “intelligent transportation.” When it comes to the environment, hikers are naturally inclined to “walk the talk.” Hikers can be part of the solution in parks by using available public transit and demanding still more options. Public transit reduces the need for parking lots, returning parks to their original objectives of protecting the landscape and offering opportunities for enjoyment and appreciation. This means more park land, cleaner air, less energy usage, reduced carbon emissions, and less crowding and congestion on park roads and at trailheads. Public transit is good for the parks and it’s good for hikers. Parks or parking lots? Vote with your feet! Public transit sounds good in theory, you may be thinking, but does it really work? Is it hiker-friendly? A few examples (some of the better ones, I admit) should begin to answer these questions.
Robert Manning is a professor of natural resources at the University of Vermont, where he teaches and conducts research on national parks. He is a new member of the Appalachia Committee. His article “Slackpacking the Colorado Trail” (co-authored with his wife, Martha Manning) appeared in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue.
The full text of this story may be found in the Summer/Fall 2009 Issue of Appalachia