On a busy June or July day, it’s safe to say that over half of the folks visiting Yellowstone National Park are congregated in the Old Faithful area. With parking lots jammed both with daytrippers and long-term visitors, the Old Faithful area becomes something most of the tourists are fleeing from — a hot, urban-feeling area — rather than a bucolic slice of nature, miles away from it all.
Given that the Old Faithful area is both atypical of the Yellowstone experience — yet uniquely a core part of it — it demands extra attention from the National Park Service, as the need to preserve America’s Oldest National Park clashes with the need for accessibility. Old Faithful Geyser, after all, is the icon of Yellowstone National Park. For many, a trip to the Old Faithful area is a visit to Yellowstone.
With such a set of unique and clashing needs, the National Park Service is in the first stages of preparing a master plan for the long-term management of the Old Faithful area, beginning with an environmental assessment, with scoping beginning in May. We’re not sure what’s on and off the table, given the budgetary restrictions currently experienced by the NPS: the new Old Faithful Visitors Center was financed largely with contributions, and the NPS and concessionaire Xanterra are sparring over improvements elsewhere in the Park. There doesn’t seem to be a huge pool of money just waiting to be thrown at the Old Faithful area.
Basically, the choices are simple: make changes that increase access to the area or better manage existing visitors to the area. Decreasing access, realistically speaking, isn’t on the table, though we suspect many in the Yellowstone community would like to see fewer cars in the Old Faithful area on a busy day. And given the extensive presence of geothermal features in the area, a wholesale shift in the parking situation at Old Faithful just isn’t in the works, either. The NPS is truly hemmed in on many fronts.
We’re sure our readers will have some fabulous ideas on the future of the Old Faithful area — either post them here in comments or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll post them in a future article — but realistically there’s only one dramatic change that wouldn’t cost too much and still redefine access to the Old Faithful area: Open access year-round.
We’ve written about this before. Some prime visitation months — including the fall and winter — see access to the Old Faithful area restricted because of the Park’s emphasis on serving snowmobile riders in the winter season versus the general public. But snowmobiling as a sport is dying out (a combination of cultural changes and shifts in the snowmobile industry itself, with a move toward higher-end and more expensive sleds), and for a National Park to base both a winter-use plan and the Old Faithful management plan on snowmobile usage is incredibly short-sighted.
Indeed, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to plow the road to Old Faithful from West Yellowstone year-round (some figures we’ve seen indicates it’s cheaper to plow the road than to groom it for snowmobiles and snowcoaches). The Old Faithful Snow Lodge is built to be open in all seasons, and we’re guessing the new visitor center is as well. It shouldn’t be hard to convert one of the gas stations to year-round usage and perhaps the General Store building next to the Snow Lodge. Invite the folks in and make sure their needs are met.
Currently it requires a snowcoach ride (at more than $100 round trip) or a snowmobile rental and hiring of a guide (well over $100 round trip) to access Old Faithful in wintertime. That puts it beyond the financial reach of most Americans. It is practically impossible to do a day trip to Old Faithful during most of the year.
Of course, this shift would require some deep analysis. Would increased winter access impact animals? Probably. The roads are already heavily used in the winter months by bison and elk, and that probably wouldn’t change if access were opened. Every winter is different; this winter most of the bison stayed in the Park and grazed in the geyser areas because of the light snowpack. But whether that increased impact is worth the additional access is a huge factor for the National Park Service.
It would be a transition for a Yellowstone area economy: businesses specializing in snowcoach and snowmobile access from West Yellowstone would need to adjust. But we’re guessing many folks visiting Old Faithful in winter would decide to stay in West Yellowstone instead of the Park, providing a boost to area hotels, gas stations and restaurants. Could West Yellowstone’s economy transition from a seasonal one to a year-round one? We think so; if nothing else the idea is definitely worthy of review.
Participating in the Discussion
In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, Yellowstone National Park will prepare an environmental assessment (EA) for the Old Faithful area over the next 16 months. The purpose of the EA is to provide a deeper understanding of resources through inventories, focus on resource protection, and address visitor connections to the resources. The process will evaluate alternative proposals and their potential impacts to multiple resources, including natural, cultural, and scenic resources, as well as visitor use and experience, park operations, and public health and safety.
The first step is to solicit public suggestions and comments during what is known as the scoping period. Any interested individual, organization, or agency can provide thoughtful, relevant information or suggestions for consideration by the NPS before the draft environmental assessment is prepared and made available for public review and comment. Individuals, groups, and agencies have from May 7 to June 7, 2010, to submit written comments on the purpose, need and objectives, and the issues and alternatives they would like considered in the new plan.
Open house meetings will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, May 17, at Old Faithful at the Yurt near the temporary Visitor Center; Tuesday, May 18, in Gardiner, Montana, at the Yellowstone Association building on Park Street; and Wednesday, May 19, in West Yellowstone at the Chamber of Commerce Building.
Additional details on the proposal and an electronic form to submit comments on the internet can be found at the National Park Service’s Planning, Environmental and Public Comment (PEPC) website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov, or by contacting the Comprehensive Planning, and Design Office, Old Faithful Comprehensive Plan, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 82190. Written comments may be submitted through the PEPC website, in person, or by mail. Comments will not be accepted over the phone, by fax, or e-mail. All public comments must be received or postmarked by midnight, June 7, 2010.
Winter photo courtesy of the National Park Service.