FAIRBANKS — The National Park Service will limit the number of vehicles allowed on the wilderness portion of Denali Park Road at 160 per day starting in 2015, but that still represents a potential sizable increase in traffic on the only road leading into Alaska’s premier national park.
The 160-vehicle-per-day cap will replace the current seasonal limit of 10,512 vehicles allowed on the road beyond 15 Mile during the 110-day tourist season from Memorial Day to a week after Labor Day. Private traffic on the park road is restricted beyond 15 Mile, and buses are used to shuttle the roughly 400,000 tourists that visit Denali into and out of the park.
The daily cap will increase the number of vehicles allowed on the park road from the current 10,512 to 17,600, but that increase is deceiving because not all vehicles, such as contractors and some tour buses, are counted against the season limit, park spokeswoman Kris Fister said.
The new daily vehicle limit will include all vehicles, including tour buses, park service vehicles, contractors, inholder traffic to lodges at the end of the road, and vehicles driven by professional photographers and film crews who get permits to drive into the park.
The Park Service estimates the total number of vehicles traveling on the road under the current system ranges from about 13,300 to 15,600 with an average daily range of 121-141.
“It could be an increase but not necessarily a huge amount,” Fister said of the 160-vehicle-per-day cap. “It’s hard to quantify because we weren’t keeping track of a lot of stuff before.”
The decision to cap the daily number of vehicles allowed on the gravel section of the 92-mile Denali Park Road follows a four-year planning effort that included a $2 million study to evaluate how increasing traffic on the park road impacts everything from wildlife to tourists to the environment.
While the new cap has not been formally adopted, it is the final recommendation made by the Park Service in an Environmental Impact Statement on the park’s vehicle management plan.
The public has until July 29 to comment on the final decision but it’s not expected to change, Fister said.
The seasonal limit has been in place since 1986, the last time the Park Service revised the traffic management plan. The new system won’t go into effect until the current transportation contract expires on Dec. 31, 2014, Fister said.
The Park Service originally proposed three different alternatives in the draft for the new traffic plan but created a fourth, preferred alternative in the final plan that was based on public comments during the scoping process, Fister said. The Park Service received almost 900 comments on the final draft plan.
The daily 160-vehicle cap could result in what Fister called a “modest” increase in the amount of seasonal traffic but is less than the highest recorded daily count of 174 vehicles in 2007, Fister said. That the new plan has room for traffic growth only makes sense, Fister said.
“This is a plan we’re looking at to manage the park road for the next 20 years,” she said.
The plan dictates that tour buses will be spaced out accordingly to prevent traffic jams at wildlife and rest stops, one of the main concerns voiced by visitors in the survey the Park Service conducted.
At the peak of the visitor season between mid-June and mid-August, Fister said there are about 90 tour and shuttle buses that use the road each day.
Visitors still will be able to reserve seats on buses in advance but they might not be able to get on a bus right away if they show up at the park without a reservation, Fister said.
“They may have to wait until later in the day to get on a bus to where they want to go,” she said.
Ron Peck, president and chief operating officer for the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said most tour companies were comfortable with the new traffic plan, and praised the Park Service for listening to their suggestions about improving the bus tours.
“We’re hopeful the new plan is going to allow for some growth,” Peck said. “Ultimately, what we want to have is a good visitor experience and maintain the environmental integrity of the park.”
The Denali Citizens Council, a nonprofit group comprised of local residents dedicated to conserving the ecological and wilderness values of the park, is opposed to increasing the amount of traffic on the park road.
“We think the 160-vehicle limit is set too high, and they haven’t proved environmentally it won’t be damaging,” board member Nancy Bale said. “We don’t think they should put the limit into regulation until they do more environmental analysis.”
The DCC also opposes the proposed elimination of the camper bus, which traditionally has ferried campers and their gear to campgrounds along the park road. Under the new system, campers would have to ride on more expensive shuttle buses, which don’t have as much room for gear.
“We really feel they should retain the camper bus,” Bale said. “We want the park to be accessible to Alaskans and cheap and inexpensive for college students who come up to visit the park.”
Bale also said too much emphasis is being placed on more expensive tour buses rather than the cheaper shuttle buses.
“We are very interested in retaining the priority of the (shuttle buses,),” she said.
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry at 907-459-7587.