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Winter 2010

MTO research explores options for Denali National Park

Since 2005, the Minnesota Traffic Observatory (MTO) has worked with the National Park Service to understand the effects of park traffic on the animal inhabitants and on the experience of park visitors in Denali National Park. To preserve the park’s unspoiled beauty, visitor traffic is limited to special tour buses. However, with high public demand for access to the natural beauty of Denali, park officials have sought new ways to ensure that as many visitors as possible are able to experience the natural wonders of the remote park without driving away wildlife or reducing the quality of visitors’ experience.

Working with the University of Vermont Park Studies Laboratory, MTO researchers developed a specialized model of traffic and wildlife sightings in the park. The model incorporates data on wildlife sightings collected by bus operators using a GPS-based data-gathering system developed specifically for the project. The model has allowed park managers to better understand the capacity limits of the current transportation system as well as the impacts of traffic on critical animal crossings and migration routes.

Now the MTO team is extending its research by creating tools that will allow Denali officials to evaluate alternative traffic scenarios in terms of their impacts on the park and on the quality of visitors’ experiences (indicated by the level of crowding). A range of alternative traffic management scenarios has been proposed, involving different route destinations, designated scenic rest stops, and the number of buses on the route. These scenarios must be examined as part of the environmental impact statement (EIS) process required for transportation projects that affect natural areas. Simulating the impacts of each proposed scenario will help park managers more fully understand the relative advantages and disadvantages of transportation policy decisions before they are implemented in the real world.

Once a new transportation system is actually deployed, park managers will be required to continually monitor the quality of visitor experience and wildlife impact indicators to ensure that set standards of these indicators are not violated; should that happen, park managers must intervene to mitigate violations.

Because it is impractical to continually monitor the complete roadway by human observation over the course of the tourist season (the road is more than 90 miles long, with several scenic rest stops, campgrounds, and sensitive wildlife areas), the MTO will be developing new database and data collection tools that will help park managers with the monitoring process. Virtual sensors along the simulated route will measure a variety of traffic variables that relate to indicator measures, such as traffic counts, rest stop monitors, vehicle bunching frequency, and other relevant factors. Park managers will then be able to “deploy” these virtual sensors wherever they want to know more about traffic conditions within the park. Data on animal movements may also be incorporated into the scenario evaluation process.

The ITS Institute team plans to continue working with the National Park Service and Denali National Park through 2013, gathering data and providing updated performance metrics and reports as well as developing new tools and helping park managers evaluate their transportation needs.

Editor’s note: This research was the cover story in the Fall 2010 issue of Park Science Journal.