Implausible as it may seem, gasoline-powered vehicles can be part of reducing carbon emissions.
They need to be part of the solution and not brushed aside.
Take for example, Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. There is a fleet of 33 tour buses powered by gasoline engines. Each year, they transport 60,000 visitors mainly across Logan Pass, the park’s famed “Going to the Sun Highway.”
Without them, congestion would be much worse and fewer people would enjoy Glacier. The Logan Pass highway is narrow and hangs off the cliffs of high rugged mountains. It is a recipe for a nightmarish traffic snarl.
Like most national parks, Glacier is very popular. People love its serenity, solitude and beauty. It is the Swiss Alps of North America, yet its attractiveness creates problems for its hiking trails and roads.
Even though it is opened mainly between Memorial and Labor days, 2.35 million visitors cause traffic jams. In 2020, the National Park Service (NPS) reported 28 closures of the Going to the Sun Road because of plugged up roads. Idling vehicles spew massive amounts of CO2. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates vehicles in stop-and-go traffic spew 30 million tons of carbon pollution each year.
To manage traffic, Glacier officials initiated a ticketed entry system two years ago. It seems to be working. Without it, park service officials believed they would have closed the West Gate, the most popular entry, 35 times last summer.
Glacier has a long history of bussing. In the late 1930s, NPS officials purchased buses from White Motor Co. It was part of a larger buy of classy looking Model 706 touring coaches for western national parks including Yosemite, Yellowstone and Mount Rainier.
The buses carry 17 passengers and are unique with their rollback canvas tops. They are painted the red color of ripe mountain ash berries found in Glacier.
Over the years, only Glacier maintained its fleet and was able to rebuild and upgrade them 20 years ago thanks to a $6 million Ford Motor Co. grant. Other national parks sold the buses, and outside of Glacier, only three remain in Yellowstone.
Today, passengers taking the red bus park their cars in already constructed lots, some of which are outside Glacier. They equate to more than 30,000 to 40,000 cars parked outside the park each year. It is a case where internal-combustion engines operating on gasoline reduce overall CO2 emissions.
Keeping bus service in our national parks has a downside as well. Francesco Orsi, geography professor at Kansas State University, told The Guardian that cars may be a big source of air pollution, but they also limit the number of people wearing out trails. Trail usage presents a whole other set of problems for the NPS.
The big issue is that cars occupy space on land that would otherwise remain wild. They leave visual scars, Orsi argues.
Today, any discussion of mixing gas, diesel, natural gas or propane in a carbon reduction plan is taboo. However, it is essential now when less than 1 percent of the 250 million vehicles in our country are electric cars, SUVs and light duty trucks. IHS Market estimated that by 2035 that total will climb to 45 percent.
Eventually, electric vehicles will increase, but between now and 2035, millions will visit our national parks.
The challenge for NPS officials is to find funding for ways to convert to electrics and to deal with the increased visitations without destroying the very character visitors want to see and enjoy.
Meanwhile, if you want to enjoy Glacier and take a ride through history, the “Red Jammer” (as the red buses are called) are the way to go.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.