It’s time to electrify our national parks

We won our Recharge campaign in Colorado, but we’re just getting started. We need to electrify the National Park and Forest Services’ fleets and make “America’s Best Idea” accessible to electric vehicles.

Clean air

Eric Timlin

This past March, we won our Recharge Where You Recharge campaign. Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) are now set to install electric vehicle (EV) chargers at all of our state parks starting this summer. This is exciting because millions of people visit our state parks, especially since the pandemic began in 2020, and they will now be able to use cleaner electric transportation to get out and enjoy nature. 

However, compared to our national park system, our state park system is small potatoes. That’s why we’re taking our Recharge campaign to the next level. We need to make both the National Park Service (NPS), and the hundreds of millions of visits they received each year, emission free.

How green are our parks really?

Our park system is immensely popular, regardless of political persuasion. Compared to other government agencies, the NPS enjoys a high favorability ranking. According to the Pew Research Center, the agency is ranked second below the postal service and just above NASA with 86 percent favorable views. With 89 percent approval, Republicans gave the NPS a three percent higher favorability rating than Democrats. 

Despite the NPS’ popularity, the agency is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than you might think. In 2019, the NPS emitted about 34,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of 450 tanker trucks of gasoline, into the atmosphere. Only 2 percent of the agency’s nearly 1,000 vehicles were electric in 2018. 

While the NPS certainly isn’t the worst culprit when it comes to vehicle pollution, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address their emissions. The areas administered by the park service, especially in Colorado, are beautiful and important for wildlife, yet are threatened by climate change. Mitigating human impact should be a priority. 

In addition to the NPS’s vehicle fleet, hundreds of millions of gas-powered vehicles enter the park every year leaving a significant impact on both air quality and our climate. In 2020, there were 237 million visits to all our national parks.

As people flocked to the outdoors to escape pandemic-driven cabin fever, the car congestion problem became a greater issue. Although I was lucky to calm my nerves with wide open skies and beautiful mountain vistas at Colorado parks this past year, I also remember being concerned by the climate impacts caused by the sea of gas-powered vehicles in the lots below the trail. 

East Troublesome Fire in Grand County, Photo from US Forest Service

Climate change and wildfires

Coloradans suffer from very poor air quality, more so than many, because of this one-two punch of vehicle emissions and more frequent and intense wildfires. 

The extra traffic – on the way there or in the parks themselves – is taking a toll on our national parks and our air quality. The sad fact is we’re contributing to climate change when we travel to the places we are going to for relief. Transportation is the single largest sector of greenhouse gas emissions in both Colorado and the U.S.

As we emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature rises. This is making snowpack less reliable and worsening droughts, turning forests into tinderboxes. Here in Colorado, we just saw the worst fire season in recent memory.

Due in part due to global warming, the fire season has extended by 78 days compared to 1970. Losing large swaths of forests that capture carbon dioxide has a doubly harmful effect when we need to rapidly reduce our emissions to avoid further climate change and increasing natural disasters.

One of my favorite places to visit was Big Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a place I’ve visited in summers and winters since 2016. Tragically, this incredible natural treasure was reduced to ash by last year’s East Troublesome Fire. I’m afraid to search for images of the damage online for fear of spoiling the snapshots of the tall grass and clear mountain streams.

A photo I took in RMNP in the summer of 2016, my first of many visits. The meadow was burned during the East Troublesome Fire in 2020

I used to live in Grand County and had friends living within miles of the fire who fled to Denver under crimson and eerie yellow skies caused by smoke blocking the sun. I saw the smoke clouds billowing over the mountains from my Denver apartment and stayed inside because it became painful to inhale. 

To quote environmentalist and author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” 

I think of Carson’s words, now with my own visceral imagery, of something I’ll never see again. 

Recharge Where You Recharge

Instead of mourning the loss of Big Meadows, it’s important to me to take action. That’s one of the reasons I care so much about reducing our vehicle emissions (and all emissions) so we don’t have to lose more of our favorite places. In the future, I want to go back to these places and not just in a photo or a memory. 

When I was at the commission hearing for Colorado Parks & Wildlife in mid-March to approve a partnership I had been advocating for between the state agency and EV company Rivian to deploy electric chargers, I saw that progress was being made.

I’ve written previously about getting to our favorite road trip destinations in an EV, but starting this July, it will actually be possible to get to all 42 state parks in Colorado and charge your car while recharging your spirit in nature. 

Rivian will install at least two charging stations at 50 CPW locations, and will pay for their installation and maintenance for up to 25 years, coming at no cost to the taxpayer!

We had launched our Recharge Where You Recharge campaign in February, and it quickly gained grassroots traction with hundreds of petition signatures, support from state legislators, CPW leadership, and even Governor Polis. At the commission hearing, Director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources said he and Polis were excited for a ribbon-cutting event when the first chargers come online this July.

Colorado is well-positioned as a leader on EVs. We are already building fast chargers along our major travel arteries, building out access to our more remote parks and have a commitment to put one million EVs on the road by 2030. Coloradans push the envelope when it comes to the environment; that’s why we need Coloradans in Congress to take us further.

What’s next?

With all the support at the state level for our Recharge Where You Recharge campaign, we’re now calling on Sen. Michael Bennet and Sen. John Hickenlooper, as well as our House Representatives, to push for EV charging infrastructure and vehicles for the National Park and Forest Services. The agencies charged with preserving “America’s Best Idea” for current and future generations should be leaders in our fight against pollution.

Every national park, national forest and any other piece of federal public land used for recreation should have EV chargers available in their existing parking lots. That way, we can easily make chargers available without digging up our scenic areas.

There is a little-known bill yet to be introduced in the 117th Congress called the Green Spaces, Green Vehicles Act which would electrify the National Park and Forest Services’ fleets, as well as install EV charging stations at existing facilities for recreation. It would also make funding available for charger installation for local public lands at the municipal or county level that have access to larger parcels of federal public land.

This is only a piece of the larger transportation emission problem we have. We definitely need more ways to access our public lands via electric buses, bike access and other multimodal transportation options. Services like Colorado’s Bustang are great for connecting people without vehicles of their own to our parks, but there’s much more we can do to make our parks more accessible to all.


We need to electrify our transportation system as soon as possible to both protect our favorite public lands and make our visits there truly a breath of fresh air. To do that, I’ll be calling on our federal representatives (and you should too!) to put the pedal to the metal to electrify the way we visit our favorite places.


Eric Timlin

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