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Trails as Transportation on our National Parks

Trails could solve the National Parks paradox.
From the Fall 2001 issue of Trails Tracks, the national newsletter of American Trails

By Jeff Olson

"Trails and greenways create "win-win" solutions by solving the paradox of how to manage increasing visitation without building new roads and parking lots."

America's National Parks are confronted by a paradox: how can we encourage more people to visit the parks when increased visitation means overcrowding, pollution, and traffic jams? Trails can offer a "win-win" solution to this paradox by improving visitor mobility in a way which benefits the environment. Innovative projects are being developed through public-private partnerships at several National Parks, including Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Grand Teton. Unfortunately, new trails are often not being treated with sufficient priority by decision makers, who don't see the unique value of trails as a serious solution to pollution, traffic congestion and visitor enjoyment.

An article in the July/August 2001 National Parks Magazine titled "The National PARK or PARKING System?" describes efforts at Yosemite, Zion, and Acadia to get visitors out of their cars by providing more public transit. The only mention of trails as transportation is a caption which says,"More people are biking into and around Zion because of the new shuttle system." There is no discussion of developing new trails for walkers, bicyclists, and equestrians as an alternative to motor vehicle transport.

An assumption is being made that our parks have enough trails already. This is unfortunate, because most existing National Park trails were built for back country hiking— not for connecting pedestrians, cyclists and other trail users to visitors' centers, campgrounds, and park destinations.

Continued investment in transportation which only meets the needs of cars, buses and trains is missing the point of why people visit parks in the first place. Improved transit can help reduce traffic congestion in our National Parks but buses and trains alone will not help people get out of their vehicles and enjoy the environment.

As our cities are building greenways and walkable, bikeable communities, our parks need to address the issue of how people experience parks in a way that benefits both human and natural environments. It will take a comprehensive and balanced approach to transportation including highways, transit, and trails to solve the paradox of our National Parks.

One example of how to make trails part of the solution is the Grand Canyon Greenway. This project will create a system of multi-use trails along the rim of the Canyon and diversify the Park's transportation system. The existing roads and parking lots were designed to accommodate approximately a million visitors per year, while annual visitation now totals over 4.5 million. The Greenway trails will create a new way to connect historic sites along the rim, complement the Park's transit system, provide access to the new Heritage Education Campus at Grand Canyon Village, and forge an important link in the 700-mile Arizona Trail.

The Greenway is a public-private partnership between the National Park Service, the Grand Canyon Foundation, and "The Green Team," a group of volunteer leaders who have donated more than $200,000 in professional services to the project. The Grand Canyon Greenway has received significant funding from ISTEA and TEA-21 through Arizona DOT and USDOT, and recently, the Pulliam Foundation announced a generous $1 million donation.

Another recent initiative highlights the need for improved roads and pathways at Grand Teton National Park. In the past two years, there have been two tragic cases of a bicyclist being struck and killed by a motorist. Community leaders in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, seized the emotions generated by these events and created a major public forum on July 12, 2001.

Called "Take Action, Jackson!" it was among the largest public meetings in the history of the town. Decision makers from Wyoming DOT, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Jackson Hole Community Pathways and other local leaders listened as hundreds of citizens voiced their requests for safer roads and new trails. Within 24 hours, a plan of action was developed and agreed upon by all the major parties, and several new projects are already in progress.

Let us hope that it doesn't take another tragedy to recognize the need for safe, enjoyable facilities in all of our National Parks. But in order to make this happen, we've got to broaden our perspective to re-define transportation as "highways, transit and trails." Federal funding legislation (called "TRIP") has been proposed by Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) to provide $60 million over five years to develop mass transit systems in our National Parks.

The legislation is a positive step forward but will only be successful if it includes trails among the eligible uses for the funding. Otherwise, we'll get better buses and trains which still let people off in parks designed for the automobile, and existing trail systems will be overwhelmed within walking distance of the new transit stops.

Of all National Parks only Acadia has a network of shared use paths which provides alternative transportation access throughout the park. The wonderful system of historic carriage roads at Acadia National Park provides miles of wide, firm trails for bicyclists, hikers and equestrians. These paths are now being linked to nearby gateway communities, and the new park transit system includes bike racks on every bus.

In addition, a $5 million donation has allowed the Friends of Acadia to establish a permanent trail maintenance program called "Acadia Trails Forever." Unfortunately in many other National Parks, and especially in heavily visited "crown jewel" parks such as Yosemite, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, bicycling or in-line skating are still banned on most trails, and existing park roadways don't provide safe facilities for non-motorized travel.

There is tremendous potential for our National Parks to make trails the focus of sustainable development efforts. Trails and greenways create "win-win" solutions for the parks, for visitors, residents, and businesses by solving the paradox of how to manage increasing visitation without building new roads and parking lots. We don't have to ban cars from our national parks or force people to see the parks from the window of a bus or train. We can transform our "National Parking System" by creating "park and trail" staging areas leading to facilities for travel by foot, bike, horseback, wheelchair and stroller.

These transportation alternatives will provide a new means of park access for people of all ages and abilities. Visitors will be able to spend more time enjoying the parks, and instead of just stopping for a series of quick photo opportunities, travel through the parks will once again become its own reward. By allowing people the choice to use trails instead of driving from one crowded parking lot to the next, we can provide environmentally friendly transportation, healthy recreation, and a more enjoyable visitor experience.

In conclusion, it must be said that these are not new ideas. What is new is the opportunity for our generation to make these ideas a reality. Edward Abbey, who wrote Desert Solitaire in 1968, described this vision of the possible future:

There is no compelling reason, for example, why tourists need to drive their automobiles to the very brink of the Grand Canyon's south rim. They could walk that last mile. Better yet, the Park Service should build an enormous parking lot about ten miles south of Grand Canyon Village and another east of Desert View. At those points, as at Yosemite, our people could emerge from their steaming shells of steel and glass and climb upon horses or bicycles for the final leg of the journey. On the rim, as at present, the hotels and restaurants will remain to serve the physical needs of the park visitors. Trips along the rim would also be made on foot, on horseback, or— utilizing the paved road which already exists— on bicycles. For those willing to go all the way from one parking lot to the other, a distance of some sixty or seventy miles, we might provide bus service back to their cars, a service which would at the same time effect a convenient exchange of bicycles and/or horses between the two terminals.

When we build new trails, safer roads and connected transit systems for transportation and recreation in our National Parks, visitors will once again be able to experience the quiet sound of a raven's flight instead of the noise from nearby roads, breathe the warmth of a summer rain instead of the fumes of motor vehicles, and see restored natural landscapes instead of overcrowded parking lots. Millions of people visit our National Parks each year, and their experiences can help create a vision of what is possible in their own communities. As stewards of some of the Earth's greatest natural wonders, it is our opportunity at the dawn of the new millennium to create a human environment worthy of such sacred places.


Grand Canyon Greenway:

Take Action, Jackson!:

TRIP Legislation:

American Trails:

Jeff Olson is a member of American Trails, and served as Director of Millennium Trails from 1998-2000. He is a leader of the Grand Canyon Greenway Project, and was recently appointed to the Transportation Research Board Committee on National Parks. He lives and works in Saratoga Springs, New York and can be reached at (518) 584-6634 or

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