Taking care of our nation’s public lands requires navigating all kinds of terrain. Like the wildlife that inhabit these lands, people who work at our parks, refuges and recreation areas must adapt to the conditions of their environment in order to manage their responsibilities. Across the country, Interior employees use vehicles that are specialized for the unique environments in which they work. Curious about how to navigate marshes, deep snows and more? Take a look at some of the specialized vehicles that are used to manage our public lands and provide the best experience for visitors.
These famous boats glide across wetlands, shallow waters and ice thanks to their flat bottoms and powerful fans. With no parts reaching below the waterline, they can travel into very shallow waters that regular boats cannot. This allows for Interior employees to study wildlife from a perspective that would otherwise be inaccessible. Airboats are especially useful on wildlife refuges because they do not upset the wildlife that lives below the water’s surface. You’ll notice that some of the people on this airboat are wearing ear protection. That’s because these boats can make some serious noise — they can be as loud as a bulldozer.
Spanning approximately 200 square miles across southern California, Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area is a popular destination for off-highway vehicle enthusiasts seeking the thrill of exploring the vast desert. While riding off-highway vehicles can be an exciting and fun activity, there is also potential for riders to experience injury as the result of an accident. To properly care for all those who visit Imperial Sand Dunes, BLM medical personnel must be able to easily access anywhere within the recreation area that visitors might travel. With their ultra-lightweight frames, wide rear tires and rear-mounted engines, sandrails are specifically designed to conquer the sandy hills that are characteristic of this gritty landscape.
Each spring, staff at Glacier National Park are faced with the daunting challenge of clearing the Going-to-the-Sun Road so that visitors may travel this scenic mountain pass during the summer. Most winters, Going-to-the-Sun Road sees huge amounts of snowfall, with some sections accumulating up to 80 feet deep. Clearing all of this snow takes 10 weeks, a lot of people working together, and a fleet of large trucks, plows and snow blowers moving roughly 4,000 tons of snow per hour. Not only is removing this snow time-consuming, it’s also nerve wracking, as employees at Glacier often work on the edges of extremely steep cliffs or atop massive piles of snow, with no clear path ahead. Avalanches of snow, ice and rock are a constant threat to snow removal crews, and weather can turn sour very quickly. It’s not uncommon for plows to have to redo sections of the road because more snow has fallen on areas that were already cleared. The road is usually open by late June, but weather at Glacier is unpredictable — some years, park staff has worked hard to clear this road well into the first week of July.
At Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, wet meadows, oak savannas, marshes and lakes converge to create an ecosystem that supports dozens of species of birds and other animals. To manage this diverse ecosystem, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees rely on amphibious marsh buggies that handle mud, grass and water with ease. These buggies use wide treads to traverse deep mud and marsh areas, and in deeper waters, these buggies float and can even be fitted with an outboard motor. Marsh buggies are especially important when wildland fires threaten wetland environments in refuges and parks, as other firefighting vehicles cannot pass through these lands. Travelling at only 6 mph on land, these buggies are not known for their speed. Instead, these buggies have earned their reputation as vehicles that can handle all kinds of challenging terrain.
U.S. Park Police officers protect and serve public lands in New York City, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco in these sleek and stealthy Dodge Chargers. To ensure the safety of visitors to famous landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge, officers must be able to quickly and effectively respond to any threat. Accelerating from 0-60 mph in under 6 seconds and reaching speeds of up to 150 mph, these cars are built for pursuit and rapid emergency response. Next time you are in one of the cities patrolled by the Park Police, look for one of these cruisers. For everyone’s sake, we hope you see these cars from the outside, not the inside.
Rangers at Denali don’t worry about horsepower — they prefer dog power! Since 1922, rangers at Denali have used dog sleds to perform tasks that are essential to keeping the park functioning during the harsh Alaskan winters such as hauling equipment and supplies, gathering data for scientific research and reaching visitors in the park. Much of Denali is federally designated wilderness in which motor vehicles are prohibited, so park rangers use sleds to access these wilderness areas without disrupting the pristine landscape. Want to see these hard working dogs for yourself? Visitors to Denali can check out the kennels or watch a sled dog demonstration, and if you’re lucky, you might see some of these dogs out in the wilderness.
The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for managing fires on 245 million acres of public lands, many of which are remote and sparsely developed. While the average fire truck may have difficulty traversing the wilderness, BLM firefighters use these off-road brush trucks to protect people and property from the hazards of wildland fires. Rugged tires, a high ground clearance and exceptional torque allow for these trucks to handle whatever terrain the wilderness throws at them. The area behind the cab houses first aid and firefighting equipment, complete with a firehose and spare tire on the roof. The firefighters who operate these trucks work in tandem with firefighters in larger trucks and in the sky to ensure that our public lands are properly cared for.
Though many of Yellowstone’s roads are closed to regular vehicle traffic during the winter, they still get plenty of use. “Oversnow” vehicles such as snowmobiles and snowcoaches are permitted on roads in the winter after sufficient snows accumulate, giving visitors the ability to experience Yellowstone’s beautiful snowy landscape and famous landmarks such as Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring. Guided snowcoach and snowmobile tours are provided by private companies that operate within the park. Like the snowcoach pictured here, many oversnow vehicles use aggressive rubber treads or large off-road tires to traverse the harsh winter terrain. Oversnow vehicles also utilize high ground clearance in order to avoid getting stuck in fresh powder. Not everyone who travels Yellowstone’s roads in the winter requires these specialized vehicles, though — bison handle the snow just fine on their own.
A durable, maneuverable raft is critical for navigating the challenging rapids of the Bruneau and Jarbidge rivers. To ensure that these rafts can handle choppy waters, sharp rocks and any unforeseen hazards, they are made of a strong rubber material that is puncture-resistant, lightweight and able to slide off rocks without tearing. Though the rafts are designed to handle the twists, turns and treacheries of these wild and scenic rivers, in the rapids, a raft is only as good as the person rowing it. Fortunately, the river rangers who pilot these waters are highly skilled navigators and rowers with a deep knowledge of the rivers in which they work. Skilled as they are, river rangers still practice safe rowing — helmets and PFDs are a must.
In Gates of the Arctic and several other remote parks, the National Park Service uses helicopters for search and rescue operations, wildlife and natural resource management, and visitor protection services. Because of their abilities to travel quickly, land precisely and access remote areas, helicopters play an important role in maintaining parks and other public lands, particularly in Alaska where the parks are often larger than those in the Lower 48. Helicopters are especially critical in wilderness parks like Gates of the Arctic, where there are no roads or trails leading into the park. Not only are helicopters necessary for many park functions, there are also perks to piloting them — pilots and passengers get to take in spectacular aerial views of some of our most beautiful lands.
Every day, people who work on our public lands use these vehicles and many others to perform their jobs. Some of these vehicles, like the snowcoach, river raft and sandrail, are also great ways for visitors to experience America’s parks, refuges and recreation areas. Though vehicles help employees get their jobs done and enhance visitors’ experiences, there are still many public land experiences to be had the old fashioned way — with some good hiking shoes and a walking stick.