There’s nothing quite like the beauty of Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island, but its blemishes look pretty familiar.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic, too many cars circling for too few parking spaces, visitors seeing more of each other than they see of spectacular sites like Thunder Hole or the view from Cadillac Mountain.

It’s called “greenlock,” and has become a common problem throughout the National Park System. More people than ever want to experience America’s prize possessions, and they are doing it in ways that could kill the very thing the visitors want to see.

If trends continue, park administrators will have only two options: Close the gates to visitors when the park hits capacity or find a way to move people that doesn’t require accommodating both visitors and their vehicles.

Of those two choices, we favor the latter. A robust public transit system that moves people without traffic jams and frees up valuable real estate that’s currently used for storing cars and trucks would maintain the natural experience of visiting the park without putting strict limits on the numbers of people who can experience it.

Acadia would not be the first place to value people over vehicles. More than 50 million people visit Disney World in Florida every year, and none of them get to drive right into the park. They all leave their cars on the perimeter and ride a shuttle to the attractions.

Acadia has s introduced free shuttle buses that circle the park and stop at trailheads and other points of interest. Why couldn’t it be expanded to replace most of the private vehicles cruising the park roads?

Acadia is not the only National Park that’s battling “greenlock” but it has some unique challenges. The National Park system has done a great marketing job, but its facilities haven’t grown with demand. Acadia is the only National Park in the entire northeast, and it’s a day’s drive away from about a quarter of the U.S. population.

With 3.5 million visitors last year year, Acadia is the seventh most visited park in the country. But it is much smaller in area than all the parks that have more visitors.

The park administration took public comment last year on a plan to require visitors to reserve parking spots in advance, spreading out the crush at the most high-demand areas. While that could make a difference in the short term, it won’t limit the damage done to the environment done by month after month of bumper-to-bumper traffic on winding roads.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that traffic in the National Parks is the result of something very positive. In ever increasing numbers, people want to experience the natural world. The challenge for policy makers is making sure that they have a good time when they visit a park and that their presence doesn’t destroy the thing they came to see.

Both those goals could be achieved if a visit to Acadia also means leaving your car at the gate.

 

 


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