The Greening of Our National Parks
“One of the most precious values of the national parks is their ability to teach us about ourselves and how we relate to the natural world. This important role may prove invaluable in the near future as we strive to understand and adapt to a changing climate.”
– Jon Jarvis, Director of the U.S. National Park Service, 2009
For more than 100 years, national parks have provided a haven for Americans seeking to escape congested cities burdened with noise and air pollution. Names such as Yellowstone, Redwood National Park, the Badlands, and Arches National Park evoke images of towering mountains, wildflowers, free-flowing rivers, and lush tree canopies. However, these treasured areas are becoming polluted from passenger vehicle emissions—which account for 40 percent of emissions that originate in national parks—as well as from ozone and smog from other sources, including coal-fired plants situated upwind from national parks. The Obama administration’s efforts to reduce these forms of pollution—such as the Clean Power Plan, announced in August—will go a long way toward ensuring that the air we breathe in our national parks is clean. But as visitors to these pristine places, many of us still want to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint.
Increasing the use of electric vehicles, or EVs, is a common-sense way to reduce vehicle emissions in national parks and on our public lands. Currently, however, national parks contain only a limited number of the EV charging stations necessary to recharge these vehicles for long trips. Many national parks span tens if not hundreds of thousands of acres and are located in more remote areas, making the use of EVs even more challenging. The National Park Service, or NPS, has made great strides over the past decade to do its part in reducing park emissions by replacing existing vehicles with EVs and making it easier for the public to use EVs in national parks by installing needed charging infrastructure. However, the park service should take additional steps to accelerate its transition to clean burning vehicles and to encourage greater use of EVs in national parks.
Clean Cities National Parks Initiative and other federal partnerships for cleaner air
Since 1999, the NPS and the Department of Energy have collaborated through the Clean Cities National Parks Initiative to promote transportation projects that reduce dependence on petroleum, reduce tailpipe emissions, and educate park visitors on the benefits of reduced vehicle emissions. Across the United States, visitors to national parks encounter EV charging stations; electric and hybrid electric vehicles incorporated into NPS fleets; and opportunities to learn about the environmental benefits of electric transportation. With more than 292 million visitors annually, the national park system also provides a venue for visitors to experience firsthand the fact that EVs can transport them to prime vacation spots.
The effort to make transportation in parks more environmentally friendly is also a key tenet of the NPS’ 2012 Green Parks Plan, which commits the NPS to reducing its carbon footprint by its centennial in 2016. According to the plan, “The NPS will transform our fleet and adopt greener transportation methods.” To accomplish this, the plan includes objectives such as evaluating new technology for use in fleets and using low-emission and low-petroleum-consuming vehicles. Currently, 21 parks host EV charging stations, while 20 parks—with some overlap with those that host chargers—have replaced petroleum-powered vehicles in their fleet with EVs. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, a fleet overhaul that will replace gasoline pickup trucks with electric vehicles and install public charging stations is expected to reduce emissions in the park by approximately 40 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Other parks have already seen reduced emissions and petroleum use from their fleets. In Teton County, Wyoming, home of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, 62 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from ground transportation. Through initiatives that include the installation of public EV charging stations and the use of plug-in hybrid EVs in NPS fleets, the region cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43,056 tons from the previous year as of June 2015.
On a programmatic level, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, is helping the NPS understand the steps necessary to electrify its fleet and how to raise awareness and promote electric transportation in the parks. NREL offers support through the Clean Cities program and its network of local coalitions and has helped develop policy that advocates broader deployment of EVs and charging stations throughout the national park system. Each park establishes a relationship with its local Clean Cities coalition. The Department of Energy and the NPS have been successful in introducing EVs and EV charging stations in national parks by providing equipment, technical assistance, education, and training to the parks. Together, NREL and the supporting Clean Cities coalitions also created the Green Rides Toolkit, a series of resources to help parks better convey to the general public the clean fuel technologies that have been adopted onsite.
National parks as natural showrooms
Installing charging stations in parks and adopting EVs for park fleets offers the NPS a unique opportunity to educate the public on these emerging, clean vehicle technologies. National parks serve as beautiful, natural showrooms that can educate people already drawn by an appreciation for the environment and concern for conserving these treasured places.
Additionally, providing EV charging infrastructure for public use makes national parks more accessible to the growing number of EV owners in the United States. In many cases, the installation of EV infrastructure is meeting needs that park patrons have already expressed. Zion National Park, for example, installed five public charging stations in response to requests from EV drivers who wanted to commute to the park but had nowhere to charge their vehicles.
How can the federal government speed the deployment of EVs and charging stations on our public lands?
The Obama administration has challenged the federal government—the single largest energy user in the United States—to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 2008 levels by 2023. While the Obama administration has made good progress through recent regulatory actions that promote clean air, it can and should do more. The Clean Cities National Parks Initiative is a quintessential example of how cross-agency coordination can help the federal government meet its aggressive goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions. To further facilitate the NPS to reach its goal of reducing its carbon footprint before the 2016 centennial and reduce emissions from public lands, the administration should take the following steps.
Expand the Clean Cities National Parks Initiative to apply to Bureau of Land Management public lands and Forest Service lands
The Clean Cities National Parks program has been successful in updating NPS vehicle fleets with EVs and installing charging stations at national parks to support the NPS and public EV deployment. However, many Americans also visit, recreate, and vacation on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, such as Lake Tahoe; Moab, Utah; and the George Washington National Forest. Like national parks, these areas are often remote and cover many acres of land, creating an even greater need for EV charging stations for visitors who wish to reduce their carbon footprint in the wild by driving their EVs to these areas. Also, because Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service staff must often drive farther distances when patrolling or staffing these areas, the increased use of EVs would help keep vehicle emissions low.
Double the number of national park system units with EV charging stations
To date, the NPS has installed EV charging stations in 21 out of 470, or roughly 4 percent, of national park units. The NPS should double the national park units with EV charging capabilities in advance of its centennial. Based on visitor attendance, proximity to existing EV charging stations in national parks, and proximity to major metropolitan areas, the NPS should target the 21 sites across the country listed in the text box for new charging stations.
21 proposed sites for electric vehicle charging stations
Arches National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Blue Ridge Parkway
Cape Cod National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Everglades National Park
Gateway National Recreation Area
George Washington Memorial Parkway
Glacier National Park; Grand Canyon National Park
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hot Springs National Park
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Natchez Trace Parkway
Olympic National Park
Redwood National Park
Yosemite National Park
Provide reduced park entrance fees for electric vehicles
Many parks currently provide discounted entrance fees for high capacity, noncommercial vehicles. The NPS also offers an annual pass at a discounted rate, which provides visitors unlimited access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. To help commemorate the NPS’ centennial and encourage visitors to use clean burning vehicles in the national park system, the NPS should provide reduced entrance fees for EVs or an annual EV park pass.
Expand the use of energy savings performance contracts, or ESPCs, to cover the installation of charging stations for EVs
ESPCs are contracts between energy service companies and the federal government that allow the government to make efficiency upgrades to federal facilities with no upfront capital costs or congressional appropriations. ESPCs make it possible for the federal government to use its energy savings over the life of the contract, which can be up to 25 years, to repay the purchase costs. Projects have traditionally included upgrades to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; water conservation improvements; and energy conservation upgrades. The energy savings to the NPS from installing EV charging stations in national parks to support vehicle fleets that would no longer require gasoline would be used to pay for these infrastructure upgrades. ESPCs have been a successful tool to increase energy savings for the federal government and should be expanded to apply to EV charging stations.
The NPS’ commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the park system is commendable and should be expanded further to accelerate the deployment of EVs and EV charging stations in national parks and on other public lands. The federal government must lead by example and continue to take aggressive action to combat climate change and cut carbon emissions, and the Clean Cities National Parks Initiative is an avenue for meeting this goal. The NPS’ centennial in 2016 further provides an opportunity for the park service to reaffirm its commitment to sustainable transportation as it transitions into the next century.
Myriam Alexander-Kearns is a Research Associate for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Nidhi Thakar is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center.
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Deputy Director, Public Lands