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Sustainability commitment leads drive for alternative-fuel vehicles

September 8, 2011 By    

Visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park are treated to nature’s version of a two-for-one deal.

Many people travel to the south-central Kentucky park to explore 390 miles of cool stone caves, but there’s also nearly 53,000 acres of lush, green hillside to explore on the surface.

For more than a decade, the park has demonstrated its commitment to preserving and protecting both aspects of its landscape through its use of alternative-fuel vehicles. By 2004, it became the first entity within the U.S.

Department of the Interior to become 100 percent alternative-fuel compatible in all of its vehicles and equipment.

And now, after experimenting with biodiesel, E-85 and propane, the park is benefiting from its $505,000 share in partnership that will expand the propane bus fleet that transports tourists from its visitors’ center to cave entrances for tours. In addition to four new buses expected this winter, the partnership will include delivery next spring of two F-150 pickup trucks with Roush propane systems for use by the park’s maintenance department, and five low-speed electric vehicles.

The partnership is part of a $1.3 million deal between the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior that divides funding between Mammoth Cave, Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. The money will be used to purchase propane, ethanol and biodiesel vehicles in each park.

Melissa Howell, executive director of the Kentucky Clean Fuels Coalition, said the project gives Mammoth Cave National Park an opportunity to share what it’s learned about integrating alternative-fuel vehicles and advanced-technology vehicles into their daily operation.

“They wanted to show other national parks how they can do it,” Howell says. “It’s not just about vehicle procurement or introducing alternative fuels to the fleet. It’s also about how do we educate our visitors that we’re doing this.”

Education is key
The park makes education part of its mission, from its efforts to teach the 600,000 to 700,000 visitors who come to the park for tours each year, to facilitating myriad scientific studies that research its unique ecology and geology.

Park superintendent Patrick Reed (shown here) says he is pleased to have the opportunity to promote the use of alternative fuels – and other environmentally sensitive practices – to other national parks.

“This park is by far the best I’ve seen among the national parks in terms of environmental leadership,” Reed says. “It is our responsibility to set a good example for the American public.”

At Mammoth Cave, visitors board what look exactly like dark green school buses before and after many of the cave tours. A “Propane…Exceptional Energy” label is displayed prominently near the door, with another on the back corner of the bus.

In a unique arrangement derived from the park’s history, the buses are owned by the park hotel, which is privately operated. Although tourists have visited Mammoth Cave for nearly 200 years, the park was privately owned until 1941. Today, Forever Resorts operates the hotel as a park concessionaire. The four buses being acquired under the partnership will be owned by the national park, but will look like those owned by the hotel. One of the hotel’s older buses will be retired.

Buses refuel at a central refueling station within the park that includes pumps for E85, E10, biodiesel and propane. In 2010, seven buses used 16,194 gallons of propane supplied by Southern States Cooperative.

Greg Davis, manager of the park hotel, says the hotel owners were eager to support the national park’s environmental commitment and eventually converted its seven buses to run on propane. They saw little operational difference from gasoline.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s business as usual,” he says. “We feel like it’s part of our responsibility as part of the national park system. When it gets down to it, it’s the right thing to do.”

Propane fuel is part of the hotel’s broader effort to be environmentally sensitive as well, using local and sustainable resources and reducing emissions wherever possible.

For example, the hotel’s restaurant is the only certified-green restaurant in Kentucky. To earn that designation, the restaurant uses local, farm-raised produce, meat and shrimp, and doesn’t use Styrofoam dishes. An effort to recycle has cut the trash-hauling bill from about $2,500 each month to $3,000 each year.

“That’s 30 [tons] to 32 tons of trash per year that we’re keeping out of the waste stream now,” says Davis, and fewer diesel emissions from garbage trucks.

Getting started
Howell piqued the park’s interest in alternative fuels when she contacted park fleet supervisors in 1998 about $5,000 available from the Kentucky Corn Growers Association to try ethanol on the site. In 1999, the national park began replacing its old passenger vehicles with bi-fueled cars and vans, and it became the first unit within the Department of the Interior to have an ethanol fueling station on its property.

From there, the park added B-20 biodiesel blend in 2001 for 25 vehicles, and later, autogas (propane) for the buses. While the park had never used propane as a vehicle fuel, employees – in fact, the entire region – were deeply familiar with it as a heating fuel since the rocky hills and valleys that surround this part of Kentucky make it impossible to run natural gas mains.

Today, the park has 35 E-85 flexible-fuel vehicles, 10 biodiesel vehicles (ferries, backhoe and mowers), seven propane buses and six low-speed electric vehicles that zip quietly through the campground.

Mammoth Cave National Park employees say their use of alternative fuels helps to educate visitors about how and why they should use alternative fuels to reduce emissions and promote a sustainable natural environment.

“People from all across the country and world come here and see our park vehicles are propane or ethanol, and it plants a seed,” says ranger Vickie Carson, a spokeswoman, shown below with Ranzy Vincent, assistant supervisor of buses.

Through trial and error, fleet managers discovered pros and cons with each fuel. That kind of perseverance is what made the endeavor so successful at Mammoth Cave, Howell says.

“The biodiesel works well until it gets cold,” says Stephen D. Kovar, chief of facility management and the fleet supervisor. “It gels in the winter, but we don’t have that problem with propane.”

If a stronger propane-refueling infrastructure emerges outside the park, Kovar says he would consider converting passenger vehicles to propane. Park employees sometimes drive as far as Frankfort, Louisville or Nashville for meetings, so they drive E85 bi-fuel vehicles because they can refuel with gasoline if necessary.

Continuing the mission
While park rangers believe it’s good for everyone to practice sustainability, the karst terrain in and around Mammoth Cave National Park makes environmental sensitivity particularly critical, says Reed. In karst terrains, water – or anything that is spilled – drains into a system of sinkholes that lead into the caves. The Green
River that runs through the park property is almost the only surface water visible on the 53,000 acres.

Because of this sieve-like terrain, anything that gets into the water enters the caves, and can potentially harm the delicate environment inside, including the eyeless, colorless fish, crayfish and the endangered Kentucky cave shrimp.

“The cave resource is very fragile,” Reed says. “A small amount of pollution can do a significant amount of damage.”

Park rangers hope they can teach visitors to be environmentally responsible through their use of signage, Junior Ranger workbooks and teachable moments on tours.

“It’s the way we have to live in the future to be responsible citizens and not run out of our natural resources,” Reed says. “Through education you get appreciation, and with appreciation you get protection and preservation and stewardship of resources.”

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