National Park Power

Following the lead of Yellowstone National Park, more than 50 national parks, from Kentucky to Alaska, are now using biodiesel blends and B100. It's a story that's been a decade in the making.
By Ron Kotrba | October 13, 2006
"Market growth" is a term often associated with big business and commercial principles typically seen as dissimilar to, or in direct conflict with, environmental protection and conservation. Apply this term to biodiesel, however, and its context becomes instantly appropriate-and in sync with protecting the unspoiled nature and rich history of America's national parks.

Truth be told, maintaining clean air, land and water is serious business for the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). Not only does the NPS provide for the safety and enjoyment to the millions of people who visit the parks each year, but it also protects these fragile ecosystems and their inhabitants from the harmful pollutants emitted, spewed and spilled inside park boundaries every day. It's up to the stewards of these lands to enforce and encourage conservation, emissions abatement and, increasingly, the use of clean-burning fuels like biodiesel. Last year alone, the NPS used almost 84,000 gallons of biodiesel. That's market growth all right, but it sure didn't happen overnight.

Yellowstone National Park, which stretches across the intersecting borders of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, is widely considered the first national park to utilize biodiesel in significant volume and applications, having started doing so about a decade ago. Biodiesel blends were being used and evaluated in the park at a time when the renewable fuel was hardly known outside research and agriculture circles-years before a coast-to-coast industry had surfaced and quality standards had been promulgated.

Yellowstone began its foray into the renewable realm with one diesel-powered vehicle, a tank full of pure canola-based biodiesel and an environmental challenge to reduce air pollution in one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. The pioneering efforts of Yellowstone have paid off. According to statistics obtained from the state of Montana, Yellowstone now reduces its carbon dioxide emissions by 500 tons annually by using biodiesel blends. This trailblazing effort has paved the way for the 50-plus national parks now using the clean fuel.

Good First Impressions
On Sept. 12, at the U.S. DOE's Central Regional Clean Cities Workshop in Moran, Wyo., the United Soybean Board (USB) recognized the NPS for its 10-plus successful years of biodiesel use. Guest panelists featured USB Director Chuck Myers, Yellowstone National Park Environmental Manager Jim Evanoff and Clean Cities Projects Manager Ernie Oakes.

According to Evanoff, Yellowstone's initial purchases of biodiesel in 1995 and 1996 were from the University of Idaho in Moscow, which was involved in researching the bourgeoning fuel. The university often made its biodiesel out of either canola or mustard seed, as it still does. "We have seen quite a few changes in the quality of the fuel, which was one of the major concerns in the beginning of the program," Evanoff tells Biodiesel Magazine. "That's one of the reasons we started with just one truck running on pure B100-to do the ultimate tests of the fuel instead of [using] B20, where there might be other conditions or contaminants that might enter into the whole program."

Since that time, fuel quality concerns from biodiesel advocates and opponents alike-including producers, blenders, retailers and consumers-have led to improved quality control standards and programs, and brought the issue to the forefront of an industry on the rise. "We think it's very important for producers to ensure the quality of their biodiesel by joining the BQ-9000 certification program," Myers says, speaking to the importance of product control measures and how soybean checkoff dollars managed by the USB help fund the leading quality assurance program in North America-BQ-9000.

For Yellowstone, Evanoff says, achieving success with biodiesel blends is accomplished by forging a solid relationship with a fuel distributor that's as passionate and dedicated to the renewable fuel as the end user.

A National (Parks) Trend
"When we started with that one truck 10 years ago-and it's still running on 100 percent canola [biodiesel]-we envisioned that a decade later, we'd have created niche markets within the region and in the surrounding states," Evanoff says. "That has pretty much come to fruition. We now have five public biodiesel pumps within the greater Yellowstone area, and we've seen a ripple effect on biodiesel being accepted by other national parks."

According to NPS Environmental Leadership Program Coordinator Shawn Norton, the NPS is a decentralized organization under which seven "eco-regional" offices are established (Alaska Area Region, Pacific West Region, Intermountain Region, Midwest Region, Northeast Region, National Capital Region, and Southeast Region). The actual number of national parks using biodiesel is unknown, Norton says, explaining that the use of biodiesel in national parks is growing so fast that it's difficult to maintain a current database of parks using the renewable fuel. "We're in the process of updating our Web site and database," he tells Biodiesel Magazine. "I can say there are at least 50, maybe up to 75, national parks currently using biodiesel in more than 1,000 different diesel applications-everything from snowplows, utility vehicles, loaders, garbage compactors and sweepers … every application you could imagine, really."

The NPS would prefer to see more parks using a B20 blend rather than fewer parks using high blends or B100. "It's a lower blending percentage, sure, but the NPS would use much more biodiesel overall," Norton says. "We believe B20 is the highest blend level that'll breed success in the NPS. It's practical, and it's affordable." However, higher concentrations of biodiesel are used in those national parks fortunate enough to not have cold weather concerns. Evanoff says the Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of Ventura, Calif., powers all of its ranger boats with B100, and the Everglades National Park in Florida is running some of its boats on B100. He also says the heating systems, which keep the facilities at Mount Rainier National Park temperate, run on B50.

All Aboard
There have been several different ways biodiesel has been promoted for use in national parks, but as of yet, there is no NPS-wide mandate to do so. "The NPS is considering putting out a director's memorandum for every park," Norton tells Biodiesel Magazine. Until then, however, the NPS will continue doing what it has been doing to increase biodiesel's presence in the parks system, and successfully so.

Much of the work to get parks on board has been done on the ground, in partnership with the USB, Norton says. "The USB helped get the word out on this early," he says. It's been a helpful, strategic relationship. In addition, the NPS has held several workshops promoting the use of biodiesel, already having staged 10 "greening" workshops across the United States, Norton says. "At each [workshop], we'd bring in experts and strongly emphasize biodiesel use," he says, adding that NPS personnel are highly engaged in resource protection and willing to take measures to protect U.S. parks without being compelled by directives.

Norton talks of how Glacier National Park in Montana began using biodiesel. The park's former manager wanted to begin using B20 in its diesel fleet and utility applications, but the staff was hesitant. "His staff didn't want it," Norton says. "It's a harsh climate up there, and there were concerns about how the fuel would perform." Regardless of what his staff thought, the now-resigned park manager felt that using B20-effectively reducing petroleum consumption by 20 percent at the park, in addition to emitting less pollutants in the air-would be beneficial and remain consistent with what Glacier National Park stands for. The park manager ordered B20 and began using it without telling his staff. Months went by without incident, and at a staff meeting, the manager asked a series of questions: "How have the vehicles been running? Have you noticed any difference? Have there been any mechanical issues?" His staff replied that everything was operating just fine. Norton says the park manager then told them they'd been using B20 for months, after which Glacier National Park staffers never thought of biodiesel the same way they used to. The park has been using the green diesel ever since.

Biodiesel is also being used in Alaska-one of the harshest climates on the planet. Tim Hudson, who previously held Evanoff's position at Yellowstone, is now in "The Last Frontier," not only using biodiesel there but pushing for ways to use Alaska's wealth of oily fish waste as a biodiesel production feedstock, Norton says.

Another well-known national park that's found success in using alternative fuels is Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park. "We started using biodiesel back in the late '90s, I believe," says Vickie Carson, public information officer with Mammoth Cave. "We had explored using ethanol in Mammoth Cave's gas-vehicle fleet … and then afterwards, biodiesel came into the picture. It really seemed like a good idea, especially because no retrofitting of the vehicles was needed. That was a big plus. Also, we wanted to be a good example."

She says the air quality in that region can be poor on some days. "The park is a Class I area," she tells Biodiesel Magazine. Under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. EPA designates national parks over 6,000 acres and national wilderness areas-those in existence as of Aug. 7, 1977-as Class I. "This means the air quality of the park is not supposed to be degraded," Carson says. "Air quality affects water quality-they're all related."

The dynamic water system, of which Mammoth Cave is a part, represents nature in all its complexities and frailties combined. Carson says among the myriad of vehicles and other applications that run on biodiesel blends, the biggest consumers of the fuel at the park are ferries that cross the Green River. The Green River is a tributary of the Ohio River, which is a major tributary of the grand Mississippi River. Keeping the air around and the water within Mammoth Cave clean is motivation enough to use biodiesel blends. "We've got nothing but good things to say about biodiesel," Carson says.

Ron Kotrba is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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