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Putting On the Brakes to Protect America's Natural Treasures

Putting On the Brakes to Protect America's Natural Treasures

National Parks Initiative greens roads and preserves once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

A white, four-door car parked on asphalt in front of a marble, multi-columned, dome-roofed building, which is surrounded by evergreen trees and under a slightly cloudy sky.

A plug-in electric vehicle charges near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Photo from Julie Sutor, NREL

Natural wonders. Fresh air. Wide open vistas. Each year, more than 280 million travelers seek adventure and inspiration at America's national parks. But all too often, what should be once-in-a-lifetime experiences are marred by traffic congestion and poor air quality. Visitors find themselves frustrated by clogged roads and obscured views of some of our most scenic natural and cultural resources.

In Yellowstone alone, 3.6 million geyser-spotters and bison-watchers arrive by car during the park's 6-month peak season. Ozone pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park can reach levels higher than in nearby Denver, Colorado, cutting visibility nearly in half.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and the National Park Service (NPS) are collaborating to develop sustainable transportation strategies. These strategies will reduce petroleum-based fuel consumption and greenhouse gases (GHGs), while enhancing the park experience.

The Clean Cities National Parks Initiative supports the NPS Green Parks Plan with transportation projects that deploy alternative fuels, electric-drive vehicles, and fuel-saving measures. These operational approaches are paired with guest outreach stressing the environmental, economic, and health benefits within the parks and the world beyond.

Sustainable Transportation Reaches Across—and Beyond—Parks

A photo of three propane buses parked on asphalt road in treed park setting with stone cliffs in the background (11598).

Zion National Park's clean-running propane buses, which shuttle 2.8 million visitors through the park each year, have served as model for National Parks Initiative efforts to save energy and enhance the visitor experience.
Photo from National Park Service, NREL

"Together, we are today's conservation visionaries, partnering to ensure we can preserve these national treasures for future generations," says Mary Hazell of NPS Sustainable Operations and Climate Change. "Sure, the Clean Cities National Parks Initiative helps us accomplish projects. More importantly, the partnerships create synergy for action at the local level with neighbors, partners, and businesses that can really make a difference."

Thirteen NPS locations have joined the initiative:

  • Yellowstone, Denali, Grand Teton, Mesa Verde, Shenandoah, Mammoth Cave, and Rocky Mountain National Parks
  • Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area
  • National Mall and Memorial Parks
  • San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
  • Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
  • Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Partners are selected based on the potential for cost-effective reductions in petroleum use and GHG emissions, use of readily-available alternative fuels, public visibility, and growing local collaboration. The initiative builds on programs that have already been established at parks including Grand Canyon, Glacier, Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, and Crater Lake.

Sustainable Strategies Tailored to Each Park

A photo of a red vintage bus on an asphalt road.

One of Glacier National Park's propane-powered historic Red Buses.
Photo from Glacier Park, Inc.

The Clean Cities partnership provides NPS staff with the knowledge and tools they need to establish sustainable actions tailored to the geography, visitor patterns, and environmental considerations of each park. Energy-saving and emission-reducing strategies include:

  • Promoting alternative transportation practices
  • Replacing fleet vehicles with cars, trucks, buses, and maintenance vehicles powered by propane, biofuel, hybrid, natural gas, and electricity
  • Promoting alternative fueling stations
  • Analyzing fleet and fuel-use data to deliver targeted equipment and operation recommendations
  • Providing operators with efficient driving best practices
  • Implementing practices to reduce idling engines
  • Educating visitors through online and printed materials, interpretive displays, programs, and personal interaction.

Where possible, Clean Cities National Parks Initiative methods and materials are being replicated across the national parks system, even in locations that are not yet formal Clean Cities partners.

"With these initial measures, we estimate that the parks have displaced more than 2.5 million gallons of petroleum-based fuel and prevented more than 23,000 tons of GHGs from being emitted," says NREL's Andrew Hudgins. "But this is really just the beginning. The projects are raising the profile of clean, cost-effective alternatives to petroleum by demonstrating these technologies to millions of visitors."

Sustainable Transportation

Fall 2013 / Issue 5

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Editorial Team

  • Kim Adams | Managing Editor
  • Bill Gillies | Creative Director
  • Dennis Schroeder | Photographer
  • Jennifer Josey | Editor
  • Michael Oakley | Web Development
  • Amy Glickson | Web Development
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