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Denali’s New Wheels
With pressure to increase access to Denali National Park’s vast wilderness comes a push for sustainability.

Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Ventures, the concessionaire for Denali National Park, test-drove a hybrid bus this summer through Alaska’s wilderness. 
Courtesy of IC Bus

Straight down the road—that’s about all the direction you’ll need to begin your drive through Denali National Park and Preserve, home to charismatic wildlife and the soaring peaks of Mount McKinley. Though this Alaskan park covers about the same area as Vermont, it’s traversed by one solitary parkway—but don’t expect to take your car very far: Private vehicles are banned beyond the Savage River at Mile 14 (one of the few exceptions is made for Camp Denali; see “Mountain High!”). Instead, each day thousands of visitors pile onto school buses used for guided tours and transportation within Denali’s boreal forests and tundra terrain. But surging tourism is taking a toll on the pristine landscape. This past summer, managers of the park’s transit system tried out a new type of bus to ease some of the strain. 

The white bus stands out among the park’s normal fleet of green and tan vehicles—but that wasn’t the only thing different about it. The new vehicle also has a rechargeable battery and electric motor coupled to a diesel engine. The park’s concessionaire, Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Ventures, test-drove the hybrid for six weeks through August as an experiment in minimizing the human impact inside the park, says Dominic Kenale, the company’s district superintendent.

The bus’s engine works a lot like a Toyota Prius’s, charging the battery as the driver breaks and providing power when he or she hits the gas. Unlike the car, it can also be plugged in at night for an added jolt. Its engine reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 40 percent and also cuts other noxious air pollutants, such as nitrous oxide and particulates. Considering that the diesel buses comprising the park’s existing 110-vehicle fleet collectively travel more than a million miles a year, the potential environmental benefit of hybrids could be substantial.

IC Bus, the new vehicle’s sole manufacturer, has sold about 20 hybrid buses since production began in 2007. They currently cost about double the price of a similar diesel bus, but with energy prices soaring, fuel savings may add up quickly. If the test bus and its battery can handle the demanding conditions at Denali, Doyon/ARAMARK will consider gradually purchasing more hybrids as they rotate older diesel buses out of commission every year.

At Denali the new vehicle was tested on the route to the popular Wonder Lake, on Mile 84 of the mostly dirt and gravel 90-mile road. To get there, the bus snaked through several river valleys and mountain passes, maneuvering steep-edged bluffs that lack guard rails, passing spots where travelers hope to spy caribou, grizzlies, moose, and Dall sheep. Because the hybrid runs far quieter than a conventional diesel engine, it’s better for wildlife—and their eager observers.

The hybrid bus does have a downside, however—one that highlights a rising strain on the park’s mass transit system. “Our challenge is to get as many people into the park on the fewest number of vehicles,” says Kenale. The new hybrid, however, only fits 40 passengers instead of the 52 in the regular models, a problem that will have to be addressed before the company purchases more, especially if the booming tourist industry persists.

Last year more than 450,000 people visited the park, a 25 percent increase since 2000 (due partially to a growth in cruise ship tourists). Locals refer to the area outside the park’s entrance as “glitter gulch” for the tourist trappings that dot the barren surroundings. Growing development outside the park has been accompanied by pressure to increase access inside, says Kris Fister, a public affairs officer at Denali.

Last year the National Parks Conservation Association opposed a plan, pushed by development interests and supported by Alaska’s congressmen, to build a resort within Denali and a new road or railroad to access it. “Economics put the nail on that,” says Jim Stratton, Alaska regional director for the organization.

Still, the demand for increased access remains. To address it, park managers are nearing the completion of a three-year study designed to reassess the park road’s capacity limit by modeling traffic patterns, surveying visitors, and tracking wildlife movements. For example, they looked for patterns in the number of times that 19 radio-collared bears crossed the road from May to September 2006. Park managers will use their results to establish a scientific basis for either changing traffic limits and configurations or leaving them untouched. If changes are proposed, says Fister, the extensive environmental review process may begin later this year. 

The Eielson Visitor Center opened at Mile 66 of Denali's park road this June. Park officials hope the building will by the first in the national park system to earn a platinum rating, the highest on the LEED green building scale.
Courtesy of National Parks Service/Denali National Park and Preserve

In the meantime, Denali added another eco-friendly feature, and, like the hybrid bus, it may be another first for national parks. Officials are hoping that the new Eielson Visitor Center, opened in June, receives the national park system’s first platinum rating, the highest under the Unites States Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Engineering Design) certification system. The new building, at Mile 66 of the road, is an expansion of an older structure. Among its many sustainable attributes, it uses solar panels and collects hydroelectric power from a nearby stream.

Hybrids and green buildings may improve Denali’s environment and remind visitors of their impact, but only time well tell how well these new projects are working to balance park preservation with the tourist surge. “They’re trying to figure out a way to get more people in the park,” says Stratton of the National Parks Conservation Association, “but you don’t want to do that in a way that destroys the wildlife that attracts people there.”    

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