Tom Snee, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell)
Saving the arches
Saving the arches
Saving the arches
Arches National Park is a place of serene, mystical beauty: a rugged collection of breathtaking natural rock formations and ancient sandstone arches that can forever change the way people look at life.
But the Utah park has in recent years started to change too many lives. Attendance jumped from 800,000 visitors in 2007 to more than 1.5 million in 2017, more than it was designed to host. Roads, parking lots, and hiking trails are straining under the pressure and suffering increasing damage. Many of the visitors—about 10%—come to the park on commercial tour buses, which present a host of additional traffic-management challenges, as they slow vehicles on the park’s few narrow roadways and fill up its scattered small parking lots.
As the number of licensed tour bus operators has increased nearly 1,000% since 2012, those challenges associated with them have increased considerably. Looking to alleviate some of the stress, the National Park Service worked this spring with four University of Iowa students in the Tippie College of Business full-time MBA program to develop a new tour bus-management strategy.
Second-year MBA students Jade Manternach of Monticello, Iowa, Cory Shultz of Iowa City, Iowa, Jason Woodruff of Lake Bluff, Illinois, and Kevin Greening of Detroit, Michigan, spent five days at the park and the nearby small town of Moab, Utah, in April. They interviewed staff members as part of the consulting project and reviewed reams of data to get a better grasp on the problem and develop solutions.
Although they could have completed the engagement from campus using email and Skype interviews, they say visiting the park itself was much more beneficial, and not just because they got to take in the incredible vistas.
“It’s easy to form opinions based on data analysis and prior experience,” says Greening. “However, being on site, interviewing stakeholders, and observing the way that commercial services interact with the park totally changed our definition of the problem and ultimately the solution we presented.”
The Arches assignment was Manternach’s second with the National Park Service—she worked at Grand Canyon National Park in summer 2018—and it taught her to always keep an open mind, even if you’re working with the same client,.
“Based on my experience at Grand Canyon, I came into this project with a preconceived notion of what the solutions may be,” she says. “However, I had to take a step back and let the team come at it from a new angle and generate different solutions. It will be really beneficial as a leader in the future to ‘yes, and…’ more often.”
The goal, they said, was to maintain safe access to the park for as many people as they can, and to protect the business interests of tour bus companies while providing the best possible visitor experience. Most importantly, their plan had to protect the park’s delicate ecosystem and the more than 2,000 natural arches that draw visitors from around the world.
Park staff initially expected to work with the students on a plan to better manage what they described as an overwhelming number of buses in the park each day. But after looking at the data, the students realized the numbers really weren’t all that overwhelming. On only about 20 days a year did the number of buses entering the park exceed 12, and not a single bus entered the park on about 30 percent of the days it was open.
The problem, the students found, was the behavior of the bus drivers and passengers. Although they made up only about 10 percent of the park’s visitors, they were responsible for a disproportionate number of issues. Having up to 50 tourists at a time appear suddenly from a single bus can damage trails, and as they tend to wander off the designated hiking ways, often disturb plant and wildlife too. Sudden crowds also wreck the experience of visitors who want to escape others and absorb the wonders of the park.
“They hinder the experience of other people in the park who are there to admire the majesty of nature and now all of a sudden there’s a bus load of tourists around them,” says Schultz.
Staff also must respond to medical emergencies from visitors who are injured because they overestimate their physical conditioning and underestimate the difficulty of the hiking trails. Many also don’t bring enough water, a frequent cause of distress in the scorching heat because the park has no water sources and temperatures approach 100 degrees most summer days. Hundreds must be tended to every year by medical personnel, and deaths aren’t uncommon—in 2018, three visitors died of heat stroke. Responding to those emergencies in the 76,000-acre park takes valuable time and resources.
Only one staff member manages the hundreds of companies running tour buses into the park, so the students suggested providing tools to better monitor the tour companies, bus drivers, and the passengers themselves.
“It’s become too much for one person to handle, there’s just too much traffic,” Woodruff says. “Instead, we thought that a better way was to put the onus on the visitors.”
Their proposal has three parts:
- A map that shows tour guides and bus drivers where they are and are not authorized to stop. The map also reminds them to bring water, not allow visitors to hike unless they have a licensed hiking guide, and not to leave the bus idling in the parking lot. This keeps the slow-moving vehicles off some roadways, reducing traffic jams, freeing up space in parking lots, and keeping hikers off the more challenging trails. Manternach says these requirements already are a part of their authorization, but bus drivers are not always aware of them, especially if it’s their first time in the park.
The students recommend the maps be translated into multiple languages, as many drivers do not use English as their first language. The map is one page and can be easily and efficiently printed, which taught the team a lesson itself.
“Don’t ignore the simple solution,” says Greening. “It is easy to get excited about leveraging flashy technology that you may forget the problem you are trying to solve.”
- Provide a briefing session on every bus before it enters the park, where rangers welcome passengers while also explaining the expectations of visitors and bus drivers. The session also would be a chance to tell visitors they are not going into an amusement park, warn them of the very real dangers they could face if not careful, and remind them to load up on water before they leave the visitor’s center.
- Require each bus to have a QR code in its windshield that park staff can scan to report bus drivers or passengers they see violating policies. Park managers can use that data to warn tour bus operators about policy violations, and to determine if an operator’s license should be renewed.
Park managers will consider the students’ recommendations during the coming months and decide what they might implement.
The students say the skills they learned on the job—leadership, listening, team-building, asking questions, and even managing internal politics—will help them as they start their careers this summer.
“From day one I’ll be interacting with experts in their fields so being humble and having a willingness to ask questions and be open minded will help me overcome a steep learning curve,” says Shultz, who will work for a medical device company.
Manternach says her NPS projects drove home the point of the importance of hiring good people.
“The experience has really solidified the importance of hiring people that you perceive to be more intelligent than yourself,” she says.