Last summer, when floodwaters rushed through Bandelier National Monument’s Frijoles Canyon, demolishing much of the parking area, it looked like a complete disaster. But the post Las Conchas fire floods helped the National Park Service achieve its illusive but long-sought goal - to eliminate private vehicles from Frijoles Canyon.
The August 21 post-fire flood in Frijoles Canyon caused Bandelier staff to remove a decaying bridge to the picnic area where hundreds of visitors parked their cars. Bandelier was already struggling with a parking shortage during peak summer season before the picnic ground parking area was damaged. For the last decade the National Park Service had proposed developing a shuttle to bring people to the park, eliminating noise, fumes and overcrowding from the historic Headquarters area. Until the fire, that idea had never moved.
Last summer, Bandelier partnered with “Atomic City Transit,” a federally and locally funded Los Alamos city bus system, to deploy a shuttle system for visitors to Bandelier. Los Alamos County built a new parking area in White Rock where visitors parked, met an NPS ranger, and rode a shuttle bus about ten miles to the park. Nine-thousand visitors used the system last year.
On February 28, the Los Alamos County Council approved a three-year contract with the National Park Service at Bandelier to provide shuttles for visitors to Frijoles Canyon. The shuttles will eventually leave from a new visitor center being built in White Rock once that facility opens later this summer.
While last year’s shuttle was an emergency response to the fire, this year the shuttle system will expand and Los Alamos County is interested in making it a permanent service that the county believes will benefit Los Alamos business while aiding the National Park Service. The county is investing in new, comfortable buses with video systems that will run every half hour. Some may run on propane to improve air quality.
With the shuttle in motion, Frijoles Canyon will have only official vehicles and shuttles. The parking area, designed for 1930s level visitation, will be mostly empty and quiet. Bandelier hosts around 230,000 visitors a year.
"We only have 50 percent of the parking spots we need in the canyon,” said Jason Lott, superintendent at Bandelier. “Los Alamos County has turned out to be a model partner for us.”
Superintendent Lott says he hopes the Bandelier shuttle, by being operated by a local government entity rather than a commercial contractor, will be “the most economically efficient shuttle system in the National Park System.”
“This shuttle will only cost the Park Service around $150,000 per year,” he said. “No other shuttle system comes close to this cost."
The National Park Service has shuttle systems to end congestion at Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks, and has struggled for years without success to start a shuttle system at Yosemite National Park.
Los Alamos County Public Relations Administrator Julie Habinger says the shuttle will be “a big economic plus to the county,” which is trying to increase tourism and diversify its economy.
Ms. Habinger says the shuttle will cost around $600,000 per year with most of the funding coming from federal grants obtained by Los Alamos County and the National Park Service. The NPS will also help with visitor fees collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. That act expires in 2014 and Los Alamos County has promised to find new funds to take the place of visitor fees if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the Act.
Yet the shuttle has had unintended negative consequences for the Bandelier Trading Company, which runs the gift shop and food service at Bandelier. Todd Nichols who owns the lease on the concession says his snack bar business has dropped dramatically with the shuttle.
“People will see the shuttle coming and throw $60 worth of food away and run to the bus even though it comes every half hour. Also my local customers have stopped coming when the shuttle is running. We may have to restructure our business because of this," said Mr. Nichols.
While Mr. Nichols has praise for the Park Service and their handling of the flood and the shuttles, he worries that the shuttle may be lowering the quality of visitor experience at the park.
But Superintendent Lott believes the lack of cars in the canyon will improve visitors' experience with less noise, fumes, and traffic jams. Yet he acknowledges that “people are attached to their cars so it may take some retraining for some visitors.”
Visitors at Bandelier walk from the visitor center to the Tuyonyi and Long House prehistoric Pueblo ruins.
People approaching Bandelier from the Jemez Mountains or from Los Alamos will not be able to park in Bandelier but will have to drive past the park to White Rock and ride the shuttle back. Los Alamos County may start shuttle service from Los Alamos in the future.