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The Future Is the Car-Free National Park

How Washington’s short-sighted fealty to the automobile has ruined the great outdoors


Lately we’ve heard a lot from the bureaucrats at the National Park Service about a looming budget crisis. They urgently need $11.5 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.”

This last was most worrisome, as it posed a threat to the health of the Park Service bureaucracy, which naturally sought to protect its turf. Despite the Service’s noisy objections—in which it was joined by strange bedfellows from the logging, grazing, and mining industries—the Wilderness Act passed Congress with overwhelming support, with one dissenting vote in the House and twelve in the Senate.

Coupled to its love of auto-touring was the Service’s belief that increasing visitorship—dependent of course on speedy and comfortable access with a car—was always and everywhere a good thing. It was the expansionist paradigm all too familiar in modern capitalist civilization. The Park Service, thinking of itself as a business, must either grow or die.

An increase in visitors historically signaled to Congress the need for expanded budgets, which allowed for more development of amenities, better-kept roads and campgrounds, bigger visitor centers with more attractive displays and entertainments, and more lodges to house visitors. But Congress in recent years, leaning ever rightward and loath to support public lands, has not responded to the rising demand with the usual budget increases.  

The Service, in desperate straits, now proposes raising park entry fees 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. The last time I went to Zion, with my daughter, the shuttles were crammed like city subways at rush hour. We left after half a day, saying to hell with Zion.  

My solution to all this is a simple one-step move that will be regarded as lunatic: apply the Wilderness Act with draconian force in the national parks and ban all motors. End the tyranny of hyper-mobility. This includes even those vaunted green-transit shuttle buses. Radicals in agriculture talk about slow food as an answer to McDonald’s. I want slow parks.

One spring afternoon I had a vision of this possibility road-walking in Yellowstone National Park a few days before the May 5 opening of the park to autos. It was at the park’s east entrance, which was soon to become a traffic jam. The road wended up toward Sylvan Pass through the Absaroka Mountains, the afternoon light shone through the pines and the firs, and all the world was silent except for my footfalls. I walked a mile or two and at dusk turned around, wary of grizzly bears that come out after dark.

I envisioned the road torn up, replaced with dirt and horse paths. No more frantic crowds racing from vista to vista, imbecilic with checklists in the guidebooks. Visitors will plod along, travel the park on foot with backpack, or hire a horse and a wrangler guide. Every ten miles or so, there will be a little way station, a humble gite-d’etape to sit and rest, get water from a spring. Campgrounds will be primitive. No more hook-up stations for your RV. No more flush toilets. You will shit in the woods with the rest of the animals. You will be mostly on your own.

Gone is the plague of overvisitation, as few people except the very hardy will want to walk the long distances of our parks, especially in the West. Gone is the cost of maintaining the infrastructure, given the drastically reduced number of people who will be using it. The motoring public will head elsewhere, hopefully stuck in the cities leaning on their horns, screaming at each other, going nowhere slowly.  

As for the Park Service bureaucracy, there will be jobs for them, though on a diminished scale. In Yellowstone, they will do burdensome things like get off their asses and disappear into the backcountry for days or weeks at a time. They will staff the primitive way stations. Help out hikers mauled by bears no longer terrorized under the regime of the car gawkers. Learn how to shoe horses and ride horseback—for the horse will be the only means of transport of goods and services in a wild Yellowstone. They will make a living the old-fashioned way, with long hours and hard work in rough conditions.  

In the near term, we could keep the Service and its contractors busy wrecking the roads. The cost of removal of asphalt paving runs about $3 a square foot. Demolition of a lane-mile, which is 63,360 square feet, would cost around $190,000, meaning a total of $380,000 for removal of a mile of two-lane road, the type prevalent in Yellowstone. There are 251 miles of paved road in Yellowstone. A mere $100 million to destroy.  

Granted, that’s no small sum, and given the current budget restraints, it would be far smarter to let nature re-colonize the roads, tearing at them with sun and rain, snow and ice, the roots of trees, the sprouts of grass and shrubs. It wouldn’t take long, a few years at most, for the roads to disappear into the maw of the forest and become a faint monument to the fools who built them.