Denali’s Failed Promise
In the early 1970’s many Alaskans were excited that with the completion of the Parks Highway, Mount McKinley National Park (as Denali was then called) would be accessible by private vehicle without the long, torturous drive over the Denali Highway. The National Park Service had other ideas.
The Service viewed the opening of the highway as a threat, bringing unprecedented crowds and ruining the wildlife viewing that made the park unique. A series of meetings were held. The Service told us: “We are going to control access. Give up your private vehicles and we will provide free transportation into the park.”
In 1972 the park bus system was inaugurated. For several years the “shuttle buses” were free, but later accessed for a $3.00 booking fee. Visitors could exit and re-board the bus anywhere along the park road, the system working as a true “shuttle” as promised. Gone are those days.
Under former Superintendent Steve Martin’s regime, the shuttle name was changed to “the VTS,’ or Visitor Transportation System, part of a thinly disguised move to get the public to accept the notion of “through transit” rather than a shuttle. Fees were charged to specific locations rather than the original “every bus goes to the end of the road” concept. Recently the VTS has been renamed the “transit system.”
Today’s transit tickets for adults cost $33.50 to Toklat River, $42.75 to Eielson, and $64 to Kantishna. Tour prices are much higher, for adults ranging from $85.50 to $222. Rangers have long exhorted people “to get off the bus and explore on your own” but when tickets are sold to specific destinations fewer people are willing to exit the bus for exploration. By default the “transit” system, used primarily by independent travelers, has become a transit of the park, and de-facto tour.
Observers point to another serious problem. The Concessioner that operates the two bus systems also sells and books the tickets, an inherent conflict of interest. Sales over the phone and on the Reserve Denali website have been lacking in balance and transparency with people directed toward the higher-priced tour tickets. Infrequent monitoring by park staff supposedly prevents this but it has been a persistent issue.
Over the years park tourism has changed. Where once independent travelers, many of them Alaskans, dominated visitation, today the vast majority of visitors are part of package tours. The Service has often somewhat disingenuously stated that their managers are merely responding to the changing reality, not enabling it. In reality, over the years the Park Service has taken a series of steps that favor package tourism over independent travel. The actions might have been small increments but in the aggregate have had a profound effect.
A few parks in the lower 48, following Denali’s example, also operate bus systems. With nearly five million visitors, Zion’s shuttle buses operate free of charge.
The Park is currently implementing a Vehicle Management Plan (VMP) that, to many observers, will funnel more buses into the park, and judging by past actions, will favor tour buses over transit buses. Despite administrative assurances that the allocations will be fair and appropriate, the historical record is not good. One year the number of tour buses increased by 25% while the shuttle buses increased by only 2.5%. Industrial tourism has incredible leverage with Denali’s management which has often favored the giants over independent travelers.
The VMP limits the time spent and number of vehicles allowed at any wildlife viewing stop. It also designates “viewsheds” where no parking or stopping is allowed. The original plan designated a handful of such “viewsheds” but the current administration seems to have designated the entire road as a viewshed, severely impacting venerable Camp Denali, a lodge that has operated hiking tours in the park since the 1950’s. If the trend continues, no longer will they be able to park their two buses along the road to enable interpretive hikes.
It seems to me a great disservice to set aside a Switzerland-sized piece of Alaska and then funnel visitors into an eight to eleven-hour bus ride. Experiences within the park should be enabled not limited by the needs of industrial tourism.