In the aftermath of last summer's Las Conchas wildfire—the largest in New Mexico history—a wall of black, muddy, log-choked water came roaring down Bandelier National Monument's Frijoles Canyon. The National Park Service had prepared for the Aug. 21 flood, wrapping the historic visitor center in heavy plastic and erecting concrete barriers to deflect the waters.
But when the flood was over, the area where some of the park's 230,000 yearly visitors park their cars was filled with debris, and the access bridge was gone. Already facing parking shortages, NPS managers had a big problem on their hands—and Albuquerque's annual Balloon Fiesta, which brings a surge of visitors to Bandelier, was just around the corner.
To their relief, Los Alamos County stepped in, providing buses to shuttle people into the park for the remainder of the season. Around 9,000 people rode the county shuttle, and for the rest of the year, Frijoles Canyon was car-free.
This was the fire's unlikely upside: allowing NPS managers to achieve the elusive and long-sought goal of limiting park traffic to a public shuttle.
For the past decade, NPS had advocated a shuttle tthat would eliminate noise, fumes and overcrowding from Bandelier's historic headquarters area. Until the fire, that idea had never moved.
But last summer, out of necessity, it finally became a reality. Los Alamos County built a new parking area outside Bandelier, in White Rock, where visitors could meet a NPS ranger and hop on the shuttle for the 10-mile ride to the park.
This February, the Los Alamos County Council formalized the arrangement, approving a three-year contract to provide shuttles for Bandelier visitors. A new visitor center, slated to open this summer in White Rock, will serve as a jumping-off point for the shuttle system, which the county believes will benefit both Los Alamos businesses and the park.
"Los Alamos County has turned out to be a model partner for us," Bandelier Superintendent Jason Lott says, adding that he hopes the shuttle will be "the most economically efficient shuttle system in the national park system" since NPS is working with a local government partner rather than a commercial contractor.
"This shuttle will only cost the Park Service around $150,000 per year," Lott explains. "No other NPS shuttle system comes close to this cost."
The National Park Service currently runs shuttle systems to alleviate congestion at Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks.
Another advantage of the Bandelier shuttle, Los Alamos County Public Relations Administrator Julie Habiger says, is its potential to increase tourism and diversify the local economy. Habiger says the shuttle will cost the county around $600,000 per year, with most of the funding coming from federal grants and some help from NPS visitor fees.
But not everyone agrees that a carless Bandelier is a good thing. Todd Nichols, who owns the lease on the Bandelier Trading Co., which runs the gift shop and food service at Bandelier, says his business has dropped dramatically since the shuttle came.
"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," Nichols says. "Also, my local customers have stopped coming when the shuttle is running. We may have to restructure our business because of this."
While Nichols praises NPS' handling of the fire and flooding, he worries that the shuttle may diminish some visitors' experiences.
But Lott argues just the opposite, maintaining that fewer cars in the canyon will mean less noise, fumes and traffic jams. "People are attached to their cars, so it may take some retraining for some visitors," he admits.
On a recent Saturday, as spring visitors arrived at Bandelier, a ranger warned them of a 20-minute wait for parking. In Frijoles Canyon, a line of cars parked on the road, with drivers waiting while Bandelier staff busily managing the overfull parking lot. With a fraction of summer visitation already frustrating visitors, Bandelier rangers are looking to the June shuttle for relief.