FAIRBANKS — Officials of Denali National Park and Preserve have begun collecting public comments on possible changes in how visitors travel around the park.
The proposed changes follow years of planning and a $2 million visitor study.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports the park is approaching capacity, at least from a traffic standpoint.
Currently, the maximum number of vehicles allowed on the park’s 92-mile road during the tourist season is 10,512. Visitors can drive only the first 15 miles of the park road and buses are allowed beyond that.
Park officials are exploring three alternatives.
One would leave the system unchanged, a second would emphasize bringing more visitors to the park and a third would focus on delivering the best visitor experience.
“We’re going to more efficiently run the system to maximize the visitor opportunities, as well as manage it so that we don’t mess up the visitor experience,” park planner Miriam Valentine said.
The need for a management plan became clear almost 40 years ago, according to Valentine. A formerly secluded destination suddenly saw its visitor numbers triple soon after the Parks Highway opened in 1972.
“We went from having this very, very limited number of visitors, and they were pretty tough folks who made it to the park back then,” she said. “Suddenly we had this direct access to the park from Fairbanks and Anchorage.”
A visit to the park used to be a once-in-a-lifetime dream trip, typically reserved for seniors enjoying a long ride along the park road. Visitors today are more diverse, including families looking for adventures and educational experiences.
“They don’t want to sit on the bus, and we’ve started making accommodations for that,” Valentine said.
The three options are:
• Plan A: would maintain the status quo. Valentine said park officials, however, would prefer a new approach.
• Alternative B: would emphasize pre-booked trips. Larger vehicles would replace much of the current fleet of buses. That would allow more visitors to experience the park.
• Alternative C: would allow for more spontaneous trips and flexibility, with options such as bird-watching and dinosaur tours. Valentine said the option would not fill every seat on every bus.
Each of the alternatives would boost vehicle numbers by about 10 percent, Valentine said.
The final plan could end up being a modified version of one of the existing options, depending on public feedback.
The situation is being watched closely by the state’s tourism industry. The Alaska Travel Industry Association has held meetings with park officials to participate in the process, said association president Ron Peck.
Peck said the association wants an option that will accommodate growth while preserving the nature of the park. The group hasn’t decided to endorse a specific plan.
“People come to Alaska to experience our culture, our history,” he said. “Denali National Park is a huge part of that.”
The National Park Service is accepting comments until Sept. 30 and the agency is hosting public meetings to discuss the plans.
A final decision is expected before the 2012 visitor season begins next summer.