“It is somewhat of a paradox that a large park should have problems accommodating a relatively small number of people. The problem really is not the number of people, but rather the number of vehicles. As we have finally learned by past experiences in other area, the solution is not to provide more and more roads for more and more automobiles.” 

— National Park Service Director George Hartzog, 1972

DENALI NATIONAL PARK — The number of visitors to Denali National Park dropped drastically this season, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The last time Denali National Park had so few visitors, the park had a different name and private vehicles could still drive the length of the park road. It was the early 1970s.

Park historian Erik K. Johnson recently looked at the evolution of transportation on the park road and creation of the shuttle bus system. His full report is available on the Denali National Park website at www.nps.gov/dena. What follows is a summary and some very brief excerpts from his research, focusing on this important time in Denali National Park history.

“In 1972, the National Park Service implemented a shuttle bus system to access the majority of Mount McKinley National Park’s 92-mile road. At the time, the decision was controversial because it marked a major change for access into the park, which was previously accessible by private vehicle; however it was a decision made by leaders who heeded the advice of numerous scientists and environmental leaders who understood the concept of ‘carrying capacity.’ They did not want to repeat the crowding and damage being caused at the park system’s other ‘crown jewel’ parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone.”

The completion of the George Parks Highway in 1971 was the major catalyst for the decision to restrict traffic west of Savage River. Park managers believed tourism would spike when residents of both Fairbanks and Anchorage were able to drive to the park.”

“In February 1972, Ernest Borgman, the general superintendent of the newly-formed NPS Alaska State Office in Anchorage, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that officers were studying a plan to restrict traffic on the road because of the expectation of a dramatic increase in visitation.

“We really don’t have any good criteria to base an estimate on, but with completion of the road, we just expect a great increase. It might be 100 percent, it might be 500 percent, or it might just be 50 percent.”

In fact, tourism increased 100 percent from 1971 to 1972.

Buses were a tradition in the park already, taking visitors into the park beginning in the 1930s. When the decision was made to restrict travel beyond Savage River to buses and private vehicles with permits in 1972, it was, of course, controversial.

But it didn’t stop visitors from coming. Visitation continued to climb, increasing by nearly 600 percent from 1972 to 1986. And until this year of COVID-19, visitation continued rising.

Today, Denali’s shuttle system is the longest continuously running shuttle system in the National Park Service, and the most extensive. In part because of the shuttle system, Johnson writes, the park road is currently being considered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. He notes that other national park have also added shuttle systems, including Acadia, Zion, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park.

This season was the first time since 1971 that private vehicles had an opportunity to travel the park road before the road lottery in September, over a series of targeted weekends throughout the summer. Ironically, visitation numbers both in 1971 and 2020 were expected to be very similar.

Compiled by Kris Capps, columnist/community editor. Reach her at kcapps@newsminer.com. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.