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Our national parks need better ways to connect people to wilderness

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For the next 100 years, let’s work on better transit accessibility.

scenic trail through the Santa Monica Mountains in LA
The Backbone Trail is a 67-mile trail through LA’s Santa Monica Mountains
National Park Service

When the National Park Service’s Backbone Trail opened in Los Angeles earlier this year, winding a 67-mile path through rugged Pacific coastline, I rejoiced. Not only because it preserved acres of pricey Malibu real estate being encroached upon by McMansions. It was mostly because I could ride a city bus to the trailhead.

As the National Park Service turns 100 today, our associations with NPS’s greatest achievements are undoubtably colored by childhood memories of driving hundreds of miles in our family minivan to camp in the Yosemite Valley. But the most interesting—and I would argue most important—work that the NPS is doing today is building parks that are not in the remote wilderness but accessible to as many people as possible.

Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson writes about how the National Park Service is prioritizing sites in urban areas. Although the NPS has always managed landmarks in big cities—like nearly all the structures that flank Washington DC’s Mall, for example—the service is looking for new ways to bring its services to where Americans live and work. “Less Half Dome,” he writes. “More Superdome.”

This kind of outreach is important for several reasons. The people who visit NPS properties are not representative of the US’s population, and a group called the Next 100 Coalition is working to increase diversity of not only park visitors, but also staff and administrators as well. Carving out an NPS site in a densely populated urban center also brings resources to the residents of a city who are most likely to live in the most park-starved neighborhoods.

But there’s something to be said about escaping the grid to engage with wilderness, even if it’s only a dozen miles away. And the biggest challenge for people who live in cities is how to get there—especially as urban-dwellers increasingly shrug off car ownership.

Luckily, the traditional National Park model of driving the family wagon to a vast parking lot is already starting to change, with the help of smart transit agencies. When LA opened its Gold Line extension, which hugs the foothills of the Angeleno National Forest, Metro heavily promoted the fact that many of the trails could be reached using connecting buses (although not particularly frequent ones). A few months later Metro introduced a free shuttle connecting a rail station to a popular trailhead.

Many parks operate their own regional transit systems, and some parks, like Zion National Park, have gone a step further by banning cars from certain areas and running hop-on, hop-off shuttles. These nearly silent buses have a minimal impact on the natural environment and the humans who are there to enjoy it.

This is the kind of innovation we need to see, and not just for the convenience of car-free hikers. Vehicular congestion has become particularly hellacious at many National Park sites, especially as gas prices go down and visitor numbers go up. (The entrance of any popular national park on a holiday weekend features a line of traffic that rivals any urban freeway.) Smog in some parks has become so troublesome that it obscures the sweeping vistas people came to see.

The National Park Service should be commended for a magnificent century of preserving our wilderness, from bison-dotted grasslands to chaparral-cloaked canyons. But to truly preserve our greatest natural treasures, we need to save these places from the car-first planning that’s pervaded them for decades. Our national parks should first and foremost be protected from our biggest national problem.