The Future Is the Car-Free National Park

Lately we’ve heard a lot from the bureaucrats at the National Park Service about a looming budget crisis. They urgently need $12 billion for maintenance of roads, bridges, visitor centers, trails, and campgrounds worn thin by an enormous increase in visitation. In 2015, the Park Service logged 300 million visitors, the most in its recorded history. The number rose to 330 million in 2016 and stayed there during 2017. Overcrowding on the trails, congestion on the roads, tourists aghast at being packed together—this is the new norm on a planet with too many people.

What the Park Service doesn’t mention is that the infrastructure crisis is in no small part the result of its policy of maintaining easy access for the convenience of the automobile. The Service has long been wedded to the provision of amenities for the mechanized public. In its own documents, it describes the “strong influence” of industrial tourism—what it called “corporate recreational tourism”—that has prevailed since the advent of auto-touring in the 1930s. Motorists were a key constituency to be coddled.

The Service was so deeply in thrall to the automobile that it opposed passage of one of the greatest pieces of environmental legislation of the 20th century, the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Wilderness Act empowers Congress to designate vast tracts of public domain where industrial development and mechanized transport are barred. “Wilderness designations in parks,” wrote historian William Graf, “would restrict management options, prevent facilities development, limit potential visitorship, and perhaps curtail budget increases.”

The Service, in desperate straits, proposed raising park entry fees [since backed down] and, in at least one national park, Zion in southern Utah, a reservation system for citizens wishing to enter. In 2000, Zion banned cars from the park, proudly instituting what it called “green transit,” a propane-powered bus-shuttle system. This did nothing to ameliorate the problem of overcrowding. Visitorship in Zion hit 4.3 million in 2016, a 60 percent increase from a decade earlier.

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