A park rediscovers a surprising asset

 

Springdale, Utah - Though some still question the wisdom of spending $11.8 million on 350 shuttle buses for Zion National Park (HCN, 4/10/00), practically everyone agrees that they allow an unexpected experience to emerge from the surreal canyons of Utah.

Quiet strikes tourists when they step off a propane-powered bus at any of the seven stops along the six-mile Zion Scenic Drive in Zion Canyon. Sounds that emerge are likely to be the scream of a raven or the murmur of the Virgin River.

Fewer cars mean fewer car alarms, fewer scenes of bloody roadkill or angry drivers looking for a parking spot in the searing summer heat.

For most people, the shuttle system, which includes a loop in Springdale, Utah, at the park's southern entrance, is a step in the right direction for an overcrowded "crown jewel" of the National Park System.

"After their first shuttle ride, I've had people who've been coming to Zion for years say that they feel like they've never been to Zion before," says Shirley Ballard, co-owner of the Driftwood Lodge here. "There's no buses idling in a cloud of diesel fumes and no RVs with generators. It's amazing."

The shuttle is mandatory between April 1 and Oct. 31 for visitors who wish to follow Zion Scenic Drive, unless they have room reservations in the park at the Zion Lodge. Visitors are still free to drive their own cars on State Route 9 through the Zion Tunnel to the park's East Entrance.

The $19 million system, which includes a visitor's center, bus stops, parking lots and bus barn, is the result of more than eight years of planning, and it ends more than a decade of frustrating traffic jams in southwest Utah's most visited national park.

The shuttle buses, which were launched on May 23, now transport up to 15,000 people per day.

Working out the kinks

Zion officials are pleased that their surveys indicate an 85 percent approval rate for the bus system among the park's visitors. But there are still some problems to solve, such as finding storage space for visitors' gear during the day, arranging for better viewing through bus windows and, perhaps, running express buses during rush periods.

It is not difficult to find visitors who approve. "Anything that reduces traffic and returns the park to the way it should be is okay by us," said Pennsylvanian Ed Williams during a recent tour.

"The less traffic and carbon monoxide we have to deal with in the park, the better, because that's what we're leaving behind in the city," adds Williams. "I don't mind the heat (in the buses) and, no, I don't need to live in my air-conditioned car. In fact, I really like watching the canyon through the windows instead of watching the road."

Despite complaints from many local residents and a few visitors, the Park Service does not intend to retrofit the bus fleet with air-conditioning units. "We may experiment with a few to see how loud the (air-conditioning motors) are," says Zion Superintendent Marty Ott, "but the shuttles were never intended to be a tour bus."

Some local businesspeople, however, worry that the shuttle will curtail both visits and visitor spending.

"I'm sure there are some visitors who don't know what to expect (of the shuttle system) and may not want to take the time to find out," says Ballard, who has lived in Springdale all her life.

Yet in spite of the hot weather, gas prices and brand-new shuttle system, nearly 80,000 more visitors came to Zion between May 1 and Aug. 1 than last year, according to park spokesman Bob Sholer.

What's more, most locals and visitors agree that the shuttle system has returned a sense of the wild to the park experience.

In Zion Canyon recently, bus driver Ron Smith and a handful of passengers looked out their windows and saw a mountain lion crossing the road - something no one in the park had seen in years.

The experience gained in Zion will be useful throughout the Park Service, says Jim Evans, an agency planner based in Washington, D.C. "Right now, the service is designing new transportation systems at Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Golden Gate Park and Acadia."

Each park, however, is unique, Evans adds. "Grand Canyon National Park, for example, is seriously looking at light rail as their primary mode of alternative transportation."

Lin Alder writes and takes photos in Springdale, Utah.

You can contact ...

* Dave Karaszewski, chief special projects manager for Zion Park, 435/772-0143;

* Patrick Shea, Park Service's Alternative Transportation Program Manager, 303/969-2347;

* Lou DeLoram, Park Service's Transportation Management Team, 202/565-1254.

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