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Saving The National Parks From Climate Change, And The Backlog, Too


Lovingly restored, one of Yellowstone's original yellow buses from the 1930s here commemorates the centennial of Old Faithful Inn (1904-2004). The restorers are Bruce Austin, driving, and John Mueller, black tuxedo, standing. Passenger doors are on the right side, separating visitors from moving traffic/Xanterra Parks and Resorts

A dairy farmer with a pithy vocabulary, my maternal grandfather had a favorite phrase: “Put up or shut up.” When mother used it on me I knew she was getting serious. Like grandfather, she expected me to take action rather than just complain.

Had she lived to see me debating climate change I am sure she would still be quoting grandfather, who in 1925, on purchasing his first car, predicted that the automobile would destroy America. A lover of horses (trained in the German cavalry), he retired his horse-drawn wagon only because cars had made the roads too dangerous.

Today, everything he produced locally is just as likely to come from another state or country. Pockmarked with houses, his once lush fields south of Binghamton, New York, are now part of its suburban fringe.

The point is that if we were serious about climate change—again, put-up-or-shut-up serious—we would never have allowed grandfather’s prediction to come true.

Never—not even in the 1960s—did environmentalists seriously take on the car. Its pollution and fossil fuels, yes, but its very presence on the landscape barely. And now? No need to worry where your tomato comes from so long as it arrives in a “greener” truck.

As superintendent of Yellowstone (1919-1929), then Park Service director (1929-1933), Horace M. Albright officially courted railroad visitors with this annual publication. Ensuring full coverage of the park, sample tours urged patrons to enter and leave by different gates and railroads/Runte collection

Multiplied by the millions, and around the world the hundreds of millions, similar stories changed the face of the Earth. Abetted by the internal combustion engine, Americans took a rural country and made it into an urban country, tripling its population along the way. Today, population worldwide is 7.5 billion.

In other words, it’s a bit late to start worrying about climate change. Why do big corporations and special interests insist we worry? Because they want the next Big Thing.

There, Winston Churchill had it nailed when he defined American culture. Pursuing the Big Thing we often start with the Wrong Thing, until finally, all of our experiments having crumbled, we go back to what would have worked all along.

A Depression-era train between Chicago and Seattle, the Yellowstone Comet was a joint operation of the Northern Pacific and Burlington railroads. Splitting at Billings, Montana, the train offered access to the park via either Gardiner or Cody, Wyoming/Runte collection

In 1925, a slower, less consumptive pace of life still worked for America. Then came the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Political leaders, to say nothing of corporate leaders, told Americans to respond by thinking big—big dams, big power projects, corporate farming, and of course bigger and faster roads.

Suddenly, the land was just background noise. What many defined as progress no longer respected modesty, as in a simpler way of doing things, with the emphasis on preserving the opportunity.

The National Parks

In grandfather’s day, the national parks were themselves exhibits of cultural modesty. Take Yellowstone. The patient traveler went there on one of five different railroads, two with branch lines directly to the park.

On arrival, railroad passengers switched to a motor coach. Buses loaded and unloaded in less than a minute, three or four people sharing a separate door and seat.

Most buses, carrying between 11 and 14 people, easily carried their luggage, too. The driver, often a college student, gave commentary along the way.

Still throughout the 1930s the system thrived, eventually to include 325 buses meeting the trains at Gardiner, West Yellowstone, Gallatin Gateway, Red Lodge, Cody, and Victor, Idaho. Not until the 1950s was the system in decline, ultimately to disappear with the falloff in rail passenger service leading to the creation of Amtrak in 1971.

By then, environmentalists themselves had totally forgotten all that railroads had done for the parks—and the American land. And no wonder: By 1971, American culture had awarded the country to the automobile. Most in Congress, to say nothing of railroad executives, expected Amtrak to be gone within five years.

What saved Amtrak? Immediately, the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Maybe (and perish the thought!) America would run out of gas for cars.

Comes now the National Park Service to warn the public about the consequences of climate change. In that case, what is the Park Service proposing we do about it? Another ban on plastic straws?

Agreed, more shuttles for the parks make sense. However, if boarding takes place at the boundary, sorry, but it’s a novelty. Our environmental impact remains the trip itself.

In Europe, the point is not to need a car in the first place. In America, to say we left our car at home likely means we flew and rented one at the airport. Either way, we then expect, on arriving at the park, not to be inconvenienced by our choice.

Peak Railroad Access to Yellowstone, late 1920s through 1930s 3. Victor, Idaho, Yellowstone via Jackson Hole, Union Pacific Railroad (UP) 4, West Yellowstone, Montana, UP 5. Gallatin Gateway, Montana, Milwaukee Road 6. Gardiner, Montana, Northern Pacific Railway (NP) 7. Red Lodge, Montana, Yellowstone via Beartooth Highway, NP 8. Cody, Wyoming, Yellowstone via Cody Road, Burlington Route 9. Lander, Wyoming, Yellowstone via Jackson Hole, Chicago & North Western Railway

Yellowstone 2027

If the national parks seem besieged, blame our demand for convenience, not climate change. There again, only America would accept the idea of surrounding the national parks with parking lots as a solution for too many cars.

What will Yellowstone look like ten years from now? Probably little different from today. Pursuing true reform, the National Park Service would need the authority to modify cultural behavior, starting with the right to insist that every visitor pay for his actual impact on the park.

Might the Park Service legitimately, i.e., effectively, do something to avert climate change? Again, only if it had the authority to influence our behavior as citizens. By the time we become visitors it’s too late.

"No, you can’t bring a 50-foot mobile home inside a national park," the entrance gate ranger says. "It requires too many burdens on the infrastructure that the park (and the world) can ill afford."

It’s so much easier banning plastic straws. The point is that even in the National Park Service, growth—the next Big Thing—is everywhere assumed and coddled. That’s what culture means.

Train time at Gardiner, Montana, circa June 1940. 300 arriving college students board waiting Yellowstone buses for transport to their summer jobs/Runte collection

For the sake of argument, say we have assumed a different culture. We have gone to Congress and suggested the following: For taking back their passenger trains, Congress will assure the railroads a reasonable profit. During World War II, the formula in most defense industries was cost plus 7 percent. Use that here. We’ve spent billions on wind farms and solar power plants. We need to invest again in good trains.

Miraculously, Congress gets the railroads to agree. With that, the National Park Service reacquires the cultural authority to pick up where the country left off in 1940. For the first time in nearly a century, visitors arriving at Yellowstone National Park are encouraged to come by train, once more to be met by classic, side-boarding yellow buses for transport within the park itself.

Naturally, someone tries to substitute corporate buses—single isles and single doors. Climb the steps while everyone else waits in line. But the Park Service stands its ground. The classic buses are more people-friendly. What’s more, they load and unload in a flash. Just ask the good folks at Glacier.

In Yellowstone, restoring the system to full operation today would of course require a fleet well above the 325 buses present in the 1930s. The point remains not to change the design. As in Glacier, the buses, while remaining classic, would include the latest updates and safety features. Everyone rides in absolute comfort. They just no longer ride alone.

And so, by 2027, the fee schedule in Yellowstone might look something like this. Although private vehicles are still allowed, the shift is noticeably to full accountability for their impact on the park.

Welcome to Yellowstone National Park

Seven-Day Fee Schedule (includes Grand Teton National Park)

Annual Passes (365 days) good in any national park

Yellow Bus Pass, Good for Seven Days: Individual $100; Family (up to five) $200.

Annual Yellow Bus Pass: $500 individual, $1,000 family. As applicable, includes transportation to and from all trains.

Bicycles: Free

Motorcycles (muffled only): $150, good for seven days. Annual pass: $1,000

Private cars and light trucks: $300, good for seven days. Annual pass: $1,500

SUVs and trucks over 14 feet: $350, good for seven days. Annual pass: $2,000

Trailers, including towing vehicle: $15 per foot, good for seven days. Annual pass: $3,000

Mobile homes, including any trailing vehicle: $15 per foot, good for seven days. Annual pass: $3,000

Commercial buses: $125 per passenger. Annual pass: $10,000

Senior discount, Yellow Bus pass only: 25 percent

Warning: Yellow buses set the pace

Passing a stopped or moving Yellow Bus: $1,000 fine

Granted, all of us could object to this fee schedule. But what in fact would we be objecting to? Likely the price, and not the necessity of getting tough on motor vehicles, which we Americans refuse to acknowledge.

Up through World War II, here for the season of 1925, Union Pacific service to West Yellowstone included two daily trains/Runte collection

There our ability to manipulate the argument has been extremely well rehearsed. It’s not that we’re opposed to paying more for parks; we are rather thinking about the poor. Oh, sure we are.

In that case, we should absolutely love trains and Yellow Buses. Think who might work in the parks again without needing to have a car. Meanwhile, those seeking greater privacy and/or luxury should expect to pay for the privilege, just as they do at the opera house or the ballpark.

97 Percent

It’s still not what we want to hear, is it? And so we muddle the issue with statistics allowing still more delay. Take those 97 percent of scientists who allegedly agree on climate change. Still the more important statistic is the 97 percent of Americans tied to their cars like an umbilical cord.

Put up or shut up. Again, what should be our plan? And if the car—green, driverless, or rudderless-- isn’t at the center of it, how will our plan ever work?

After all, the car itself is but the tip of the iceberg. Since I was a kid, every park road my family traveled in 1959 has been liberally widened and straightened. No park should change for the visitor. Rather, visitors should change for the parks.

The beauty of arriving by train was to make the parks everyone’s first priority. If you will, the train filtered out the indifferent traveler, for whom even a park was just another place.

Added benefits of restoring that system would include:

  • 1. Good jobs. Ideally, most bus drivers would be seasonal interpreters, now with a real opportunity for Park Service employment. No tipping allowed, of course.
  • 2. An American renaissance rebuilding our railroads to accommodate modern passenger trains. More good jobs.
  • 3. A less consumptive, frantic, and more inviting atmosphere inside the parks—and country. Animal deaths (and human ones) should dramatically drop, as well. Pass a yellow bus? Pay a $1,000 fine. It’s a school zone, folks, not a race track. But thank you for contributing to the backlog.
  • 4. A legitimate response, as opposed to a faux response, proving our commitment to the environment.

Fine Tuning

  • 1. Agreed, no one should have to wait in line. In peak season, this would undoubtedly require several thousand buses, but again, think of the cars they would displace.
  • 2. Buses meeting the trains would go straight to the hotels and campgrounds; all other buses would do a circuit. Stop, see a feature, return to the next bus and resume your tour.
  • 3. As the season in one park begins winding down, buses (and trains) migrate to other parks as needed, for example, from Yellowstone to Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Mojave Preserve, and Mojave Trails National Monument (Historic Route 66).

Can’t work? But that’s just the point—it did, and beautifully. Perhaps, but there were fewer people in the 1930s, and most coming to the parks were well-to-do. It could not possibly work today!

It remains Winston Churchill’s point. Lest we Americans be saddled with a proven idea, we would prefer ripping it to shreds. Numbers don’t tie our hands. Culture ties our hands. We Americans just don’t like being told what to do.

No doubt, the system described above was accidental—part necessity and part good luck. Because railroads needed to follow natural contours they taught Americans to respect the land. Because the automobile had yet to overwhelm the land, another modest technology, the Yellow Bus, was itself able to complement the railroads inside the national parks.

The automobile finally sent discipline packing, inviting terms like cul-de-sac, strip mall, and sprawl. Can we rescue the car? Perhaps. But think if by succeeding all we do is perpetuate our cultural penchant for sprawl.

What then? The wind turbine? The solar panel? Europe is filled with electric trains. Unfortunately, they again are not our model. America’s argument for renewable energy remains development. We are not in a war against carbon, but rather against the fear of having to do without. Every Big Thing in America starts with our right to grow.

Were it really about carbon, growth would cease. The national parks especially would be the benefactors of what protects and does not destroy.

Grandfather rests his case. 

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The fascination with railroads is anachronistic in an era of Interstates and airports.  College student drivers? More likely unionized D.C. Metro level service and reliability brought to Wyoming. As for the prices, have you read the comments on these boards about raising the prices of a Seniors Access pass from the joke that it currently sits at? After all they have earned the right to drag the 37' fifth wheeler through the Parks fo $10!


Better to focus on self driving, programmable hybrid/hydrogen/electric vehicles that will allow for speed, spacing and route restrictions, keeping the (illusion) of independence, flexibility and reach that people crave.  Shuttles might work in Zion because it's limited in scope; scaling to Yellowstone size is probably cost prohibitive and logistically beyond the abilities of any governmental entity.

Your article makes salient points, Mr. Runte.  I do agree, visitors should change for the park and not the other way around.  As you say, it's going to take a huge cultural shift.

There are shuttles in parks such as Glacier and Zion as well as buses in Denali National Park.  I know the bus system works in Denali because I've been on a bus to get through the park.  Of course, there is little to no other choice if I want to see that park without a winning road lottery ticket. That might ultimately have to be the route that other national parks and monuments take. And that would be a huge cultural shift right there - particularly for those of us who want to stop or go as we please, for as long as we wish.  On the Denali bus that I took to get to my Camp Denali lodging, we actually got out of the bus maybe once during the entire 4-hour trip to our destination, and that was a bathroom break - we had to get to our lodging within a determined period of time.  The bus made plenty of other stops, but we were unable to disembark.  For photographers like me, it was small consolation sticking my camera out of the window to get a shot, rather than being able to set down my tripod and frame my composition like I really wanted to do, taking as long as I wished to get capture just the right image. Aside from my particular bus ride, I do know that other bus companies within Denali stop at all the view areas within the park.  This system works, and we make do with what is offered.  

I think a big question regarding use of the shuttles and other mass transportation systems within a park is  the question of whether or not there would be enough stops and pickups made on a short and regular basis, so nobody has to wait half a day to get from one place to the next.  That, and the fact that a gazillion people would all be getting out at the same place at the same time, much like we see tour buses do at Grand Canyon National Park and Arches National Park.  As a photographer, I enjoy getting to a spot before the crack of dawn and/or staying long after sundown to get in some star photography and to just listen to the night noises around me (like the yip of a coyote or the hoot of an owl).  Would mass transportation accommodate that? Would shuttles run pre-sunrise and post-sunset? Yes, people like their cars (me included) for the freedom it affords us to stop and go as we wish, for as long or as short as we wish.  It also allows me freedom *away* from masses of people (I get enough of that in my daily life).  And sure, because we all love our cars, it's that much more difficult to try and curb the pollution generated by those cars that in turn are propelling climate change - its much easier to just not think about it (yes, I do believe that humans, as the dominant species, influence climate change, just as they have influenced so much else in this world).  

But I don't, for one moment, think that there is not change in the air regarding how to make cars not only more energy-efficient but also cleaner.  What stops a more rapid progression of electric or hybrid cars being owned by the public is the current technology, the price of that technology, and the fact that oil continues to be a cheap energy source to power our gas guzzlers.  Your ideas of trains, buses and shuttles will have a difficult time getting off the ground for as long as gasoline remains cheap and plentiful and the price of SUVs and "big honkin" trucks remain within reach of the 97%.  Oh dear, I do sound like a proponent for the car, don't I?  You are right - I'll continue to drive my car into a park for as long as I am allowed to do so, unless I see an equal value (as a photographer if for no other reason) to using the shuttle or bus, or, unless I have no other choice in the matter.

While reading your article, I'm afraid I got a little sidelined regarding your remark that it's too late to start worrying about climate change.  I absolultely do NOT believe that it's too late to start worrying *or* doing anything about climate change.  Where would we be if we decided it was too late to do anything about pollution in the cities or in our lakes and other water bodies (I'm thinking here about the Cuyahoga River and about the Great Lakes and about the smog over New York and Los Angeles, then and now)?   When I am able to afford a mileage-efficient electric car, or even a hybrid car, then I myself will purchase such a vehicle.

But, back to your article.  It makes me think about this, which is more than I have done before, and that's a good thing.  So, thank you for your point of view, Mr. Runte.

Excellent comments, Rebecca!  Excellent!

Thank y9ou Rebecca for a nuanced commentary. . . .  We do want to have our cake and eat it too, but try to find the middle ground . . .   I've bben in te places to mention and have "worried" the answers!  How do we see and do what we want while perfectly appropriating the future . . .

Been through many of these places . . . need to let our personal "needs" go and enjoy the opps available!   For the good of the few or the many . . for the moment or forever!

Trains are not coming back, ever.

The reason environmentalists (people who care), never seriously took on the car was because technology was not what it is today.  We also had GM to contend with.  People tried to make electric cars, steam cars, and others, but they never took off, or were not efficient enough.  Now we have France saying they will not sell internal combustion engines, and Volvo saying they will quit making internal combustion engines. 

No, Argalite, the reason environmentalists never took on the car was because they liked driving, too. For example, how else would they carry their rafts to rivers, and their backpacking gear to Camp Four? In 1969, Santa Barbara millionairies protested the oil spill. Not one of them was driving a Volkswagon. All had a Mercedes Benz. "Get Oil Out" they shouted, while filling up their tanks. Said Governor Jerry Brown in 1974 during the Arab Oil Embargo: "California deserves more gas. After all, we drive more."

It's our national blindspot, like Richard Flint above. I ain't never going to give up MY car!" In that case, stop bitching about overcrowding in the parks. WE are the cause of it, not Donald Trump. With public transportation, the problem could easily be solved. But no one in America wants to solve it. We want "the other guy" to be priced out of the parks. Finally, the Park Service is now forced to set its eye on us. And boy, are we going to howl about the "unfairness" of it all. Certainly, we will be the first to ask for exceptions. But, but, but--I have all my stuff to haul. Keep them out--not me! Just watch.

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