Cars parked at Boulder Pass Trailhead

Cars in the parks: a blessing and a curse

Cars have been both a blessing and a curse for national parks. They are how most of us get to the places we love, but they also hurt the places we love.

The advent of automobiles in the parks more than a century ago delivered the promise of national parks as democratic spaces. Even greater numbers of people could enjoy the parks because of the affordable mobility that came with car ownership. And in a democratic society, more popularity means more political support for national parks. Cars have had a significant impact on making national parks an indispensable element in what it means to be American.

At the same time, cars pose a threat to national parks. More people visit the most popular parks than may be sustainable, especially for fragile ecosystems that cannot withstand the armies of vacationers trampling the land. Besides delivering the damaging hoards of visitors, cars do direct damage, killing wildlife and spewing pollutants into the air, and sacrificing precious ground for parking and other accommodations of car culture. Too many parks are sagging under the burden of so many vehicles.

Cars also have impacted how most people experience the parks. Evan Berry discusses in his book Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism (2015) how the introduction of automobiles in the early twentieth century transformed the recreational value of national parks by emphasizing visual experience at the expense of more embodied forms of outdoor recreation. In short, for many people cars made national parks little more than pretty places of outstanding scenic vistas (this turn to the visual was also aided by the introduction of cheaper cameras, perhaps a topic for another day). Even today, when we see more enthusiasm, especially among younger visitors, for a range of recreational pursuits that involve more embodied experiences of nature, relatively few of the tens of millions of annual park visitors get off the highway and into the wilderness. This actually may be good for the parks, limiting the damage that cars bring to narrow corridors where the roads take them.

Perhaps, then, the curse of the car is its blessing: large numbers of people visit, enjoy, and support parks, but their impact on the places they love remains limited to the front country attractions connected by roadways, while for the most part the vast acres of backcountry wildlands persist free of traffic.

Cars parked at Boulder Pass Trailhead
Cars parked at the Boulder Pass Trailhead, Glacier National Park (Photo by David Restivo, NPS, 2006)

[Daily post 024 of 260 in my year-long challenge.] ♨

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