On July 4, 1969, I counted 1,469 large animals while driving the McKinley (now Denali) Park road. Many longtime park patrons agree that wildlife-viewing opportunities have diminished greatly since the late 1980s. A park tour driver estimated that it would now take five weeks to see the number of animals I saw that July day. In my opinion, heavy bus traffic on the park road has been a significant factor in the decline.
Bus-only access was inaugurated in 1972, the year the Parks Highway opened. Visitation doubled that year, topping 88,000. (In 2005, the number hit 403,000.) The relatively primitive condition of the road and preserving wildlife-viewing opportunities were cited as reasons for establishing the access controls.
The shuttle bus system was not universally welcomed. In return for restricting private vehicles, the National Park Service promised free shuttles. Today the once free ticket to Wonder Lake costs about $35 per adult. Some Alaskans view the fees as a breach of the pact the National Park Service made with the public.
The shuttle system is now in jeopardy. The total number of bus trips into the park is currently limited. A fixed number of trips are assigned to each of the two types of buses, shuttle and tour. Because large tour companies, mostly cruise lines, cannot funnel unlimited numbers of their customers through the park, Gov. Frank Murkowski refers to Denali as "Bottleneck National Park." Large operators are bringing intense pressure on the Park Service to either increase the total number of buses or change the allocations to favor tour groups.
It is claimed that the shuttle system is unpopular and underutilized, with many shuttles leaving the visitor center only partially filled. In one Park Service brain-storming session this past year, the idea was floated to revamp the system and eliminate the shuttle buses. No final decisions have been made. This summer, however, some shuttle trips will be redesignated for tours.
Independent travel to Denali Park has remained flat or has slightly decreased over the last few years. I feel it is because commercial tourism has come to dominate the entire park experience, dissuading independent travelers.
Over the course of the past two summers a few local people, posing as visitors, inquired about bus tickets at three different hotels run by the concessionaire. In not once instance was the shuttle system mentioned first. All emphasis was on the $90 wildlife bus tour. When asked about a particular shuttle bus, one employee said it was sold out. A follow-up at the visitor center revealed that the shuttle was not sold out but rather only half full. Another person called the 1-800 reservation line, which is also run by the park concessionaire, and was told the shuttles were sold out. A pitch was made for the more expensive tour.
Again, a check at the visitor center found numerous available seats. Because of this and other anecdotal evidence, some people believe the shuttle system is intentionally being undercut. In the best interest of the public, the phone and online reservation system should be run by an independent provider, not the concessionaire.
National parks are managed as a partnership between the Park Service and concessionaire. But can a partnership succeed when the partners have different goals? One entity is mandated to protect the resource, but the other is profit-driven. New hotel construction at the park will soon provide an estimated 1,000 beds. Demand for increased access will intensify.
The park is about to embark on a three-year study to analyze the impact of road traffic. Some people fear that the study will be used to dump yet more buses onto the park road. Conversely, park critics -- mostly in the commercial sector -- see the study as a stalling tactic and a way to prevent more people from enjoying the park.
Denali was established primarily as a wildlife sanctuary. I believe increased bus traffic will adversely affect park wildlife. The Park Service needs strong support to resist expanding a system that may be damaging the park's priceless wildlife.
Photographer and author Tom Walker is a 40-year Alaska resident who lives near the entrance to Denali National Park.