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The Only Way In

Published to coincide with the National Park Service's 100th anniverary—being celebrated this week—National Park Roads: A Legacy in the American Landscape looks at the history of the parks' vast network of roads. Authored by NPS historian Tim Davis, the book reveals how roads have been the crucial element not only in creating iconic views but the access for millions of people to enjoy the parks. Davis agreed to answer a few questions about his book and the fascinating story it tells.

Q: We are supposed to notice the scenery in the national parks rather than the roads we drove in on, which ideally remain invisible to park visitors, but you are calling attention to them in your book. What is the significance of the roads? 

Davis: At the most basic level, roads shape the way most people experience national parks, leading them on carefully choreographed excursions through landscapes of scenic beauty and cultural significance. It’s no exaggeration to say that, for most people, the national park experience is primarily a park road experience.  

While it’s easy to rail against the automobile’s ostensibly evil influence, it’s both more interesting and more illuminating to examine the roots of the relationships between roads and parks. Deliberations about park roads may revolve around questions of engineering and landscape architecture, but they are really debates about the nature and meaning of America’s national parks.

More than any other aspect of park management, roads epitomize the central challenge of the National Park Service’s founding legislation: balancing preservation and access in America’s most cherished landscapes. From John Muir and Frederick Law Olmsted to Ansel Adams, Edward Abbey and a succession of park service leaders, there has been widespread agreement with Sierra Club spokesman Harold Bradley’s assertion, “Park roads determine park history.”

Q: You acknowledge a contradiction in the park service’s goals of opening the parks to millions of people and, at the same time, trying to preserve these lands. That’s a delicate balance the parks must achieve. There were over 300 million visitors in 2015. What impact do such massive numbers of visitors have on the parks? 

Davis: In a recent New York Times piece, Ken Burns collaborator Dayton Duncan reprised the oft-voiced lament that national parks are being “loved to death.” Witnessing the crowds descending on popular destinations, it’s easy to share Duncan’s concerns, but we should also consider how lucky we are to be in this situation. When the National Park Service was formed one hundred years ago, the main worry was that the parks were so underutilized that they were of minimal value to the American public and couldn’t generate enough support to protect or expand the system.  The primary problem, everyone agreed, was lack of access.  

The National Park Service made road-building a priority and embraced automobile tourism as a means of making parks more accessible to middle-class Americans. By limiting development to a few roads leading to key destinations, minimizing the visual impacts of construction and employing sophisticated planning and design techniques in the development of visitor facilities, they dramatically increased visitation while leaving the majority of most parks free for non-motorized use.  

Q: An important quality of cars is that they MOVE. What are the special challenges of creating views for people who are actually in motion? And what about the opinion that much of this scenery is better experienced on foot?

Davis: Many commentators have taken exception to the automobile’s role in shaping the national park experience. Some felt that vehicular travel and the view from the road supplanted a more refined and authentic relationship with the natural environment–that by inundating parks with swarms of motorized philistines, automobiles imperiled the moral, social, and spiritual values of America’s national parks, undermining their ability ameliorate the impact of modern urban life.

While this appeals to contemporary sensibilities, it belies an imperfect understanding of the history of parks and landscape values. Parks and roads have been integrally related for centuries and the view from the road emerged as the favored means of experiencing scenery with the development of modern conceptions of landscape appreciation in eighteenth-century Europe.

Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux helped transfer these ideas to American with their designs for Central Park and other urban oases. Carriage roads played prominent roles in their designs, both to provide access to amenities and because Olmsted believed that driving through attractive scenery afforded a relaxing respite from modern cares. When engineering and scenic concerns conflicted, however, Olmsted emphasized that the latter should prevail.

The automobile posed additional challenges and possibilities. Motor roads were harder to harmonize with their surroundings, but they could provide access to unprecedented amounts of scenery. From the 1920s to the present, the National Park Service has collaborated with the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and its successor, the Federal Highway Administration, to adapt traditional design and construction to evolving conditions.  

Along with limited the extent of road development, great efforts were made to showcase signature scenery while minimizing the visual impact of road development. Variations in light and shadow, openness and enclosure, distant views and intimate close-ups, and myriad other permutations were meticulously planned to enhance the motoring experience. Visitors rarely realize the degree to which park road designers structure their experiences as they motor through seemingly fortuitous combinations of scenic views and sensory experiences

Q: Looking ahead, where do you see significant expansion of park roads, and what factors do you think will impact these plans the most—ranging from climate change to social barriers?

Davis: Major additions to the NPS road system are likely to be few and far between, but as the agency enters its second century, it faces many of the challenges it encountered at the outset: financial uncertainties, technological transformations, and the need to attract broader and more diverse audiences. According to current calculations the NPS faces maintenance backlog of almost $12 billion, nearly half of which is road-related. Congress recently passed a transportation bill providing increases in funding over the next five years, but the amount falls well short of the amount required to ensure national park fulfill their intended functions and adapt to evolving conditions  

Climate change is another looming concern. During the past two decades increasingly volatile weather patterns contributed to catastrophic flooding in Mount Rainier, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National Parks that cost millions of dollars to repair. Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Sandy had devastating impacts on many eastern parks. Rising sea levels threaten roads in coastal parks, many of which are subject to frequent flooding and erosion.

Just as early NPS leaders embraced the burgeoning population of automobile owners, current strategies target today’s technological trends. The NPS is expanding its digital outreach through enhanced websites, expanded social media offerings, park-related smart-phone applications, and other tricks of the digital trade. It is now possible to “visit” national parks through webcams, vast stores of still images, and amateur and professional streaming video.  Digital diversions will never replace physical excursions, but they can play an important role in introducing new generations to the sights and stories to be found in America’s national parks.

The NPS has also devoted increasing attention to overcoming social barriers to access. Early NPS policies transformed national parks from elite retreats into playgrounds for the motoring masses, but twentieth-century visitors were overwhelmingly white and predominantly middle class. Today’s leaders understand that improving access is not just a matter of facilitating physical transportation but of building bridges to underrepresented communities. Numerous initiatives have been developed to expand the appeal of existing sites and commemorate a broader array of American experiences.

Throughout its hundred-year history, the NPS has tried to strike a balance between the concerns of those who believed it was building too many roads and the demands of those who thought it was building too few.  Each generation built on its predecessor’s successes and failures in addressing an expanding array of social, environmental, and technological challenges. This process produced a world-renowned road system that affords access to a compelling collection of scenic and historic landscapes while preserving millions of acres for visitors seeking respite from roads, cars and other signs of civilization.

National Park Roads: A Legacy in the American Landscape is available now.


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