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Officials Ponder How to Handle High Visitation to Yellowstone

With the approach of the summer season, one thing is certain: there’s going to be a lot of people in Yellowstone National Park.

And if visitor trends are anything like they’ve been the past few years, you can expect a record-breaking summer.

In 2016, nearly 4.3 million people visited Yellowstone National Park, the busiest year on record. The following year, nearly 4.2 million people visited, marking the second-busiest year on record. The current trend shows no stopping the flow of visitors, which has some park officials worried.

In November 2016, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said he expects visitation to say high and voiced discouragement over a spate of incidents over the summer of 2016:

• In May, a pair of visitors loaded a bison calf into their car after they thought the calf was cold. The calf was later euthanized because it couldn’t be reintroduced to its herd.
• Also in May, a group of men with the “High on Life” company were seen walking on Grand Prismatic Spring and taking selfies near the center pool. They later plead guilty in court after briefly leaving the country.
• In June, a visitor died after falling in a hot spring in Norris Geyser Basin far off the boardwalk. Rangers reported there were “no remains left to recover” due to the hotness and acidity of the pool.

Wenk outlined the need for visitors to be aware of dangers in Yellowstone from both hot springs and wildlife, to ensure that visitors stay safe and don’t damage park resources.

Last year, Yellowstone National Park released a pair of visitor use and traffic surveys on current and future visitor trends. Alarmingly, the surveys warned Yellowstone’s roads could become terminally poor by 2023 due to overuse.

As things stand, Yellowstone’s infrastructure needs serious investment, a problem facing the National Park system as a whole. At last estimate, the national park maintenance backlog stands at approximately $12 billion.

Solutions to the issue of overvisitation vary. Some national parks have proposed instituting vehicle quotas to cut down on traffic. Other parks have proposed shifting more toward buses and other forms of transit.

Last fall, the Interior Department proposed instituting “peak season” entry fees at 17 national parks, including Yellowstone, which would have seen the price of a seven-day car pass rise from $30 to $70. However, the Department shelved the plan following overwhelmingly negative public comment.

However, the National Park Service has announced it is raising car pass prices from $30 to $35 beginning June 1, 2018.

Another proposed solution to overvisitation in Yellowstone is to “spread the wealth” by promoting attractions in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

According to the Powell Tribune, officials in Park County, Wyoming (home of Cody, one of the gateways to Yellowstone) have expressed interest in convincing visitors to spend less time in Yellowstone and more time in places like Cody, Powell, and the national forests/BLM lands that adjoin them. Indeed, according to the Tribune, figures like James Klessens (president and CEO of Forward Cody) have pitched this as an opportunity to bring more revenue to places outside Yellowstone and alleviate pressure on the park:

“I think what we have to figure out is how do we work with this as a community — how do we become that jumping off spot for people to go to Yellowstone?” [Klessens] said at the May 1 Park County Commission meeting.

Park officials have said surveys suggest half the people who visit Yellowstone only want to see Old Faithful.

“So my question is, if you’re going to take a seven-day vacation, [why not] spend six of it in Cody [and Powell] and one in Yellowstone and we’ll have a good time,” Klessens said.

The Park County Travel Council has been discussing that same concept of promoting visits to Cody, with a trip to Yellowstone when you’re done, said Commissioner Jake Fulkerson.

The idea to “diffuse” visitors to Yellowstone by promoting other attractions has been broached by other parties. The University of Montana, for instance, published a report last year on how overcrowding is affecting Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. One of the solutions offered, besides investing more money in infrastructure, visitor education and staff, is to promote attractions outside national parks, rather than concentrate visitors in one place for extended periods.

Not everyone in Park County is on board with drawing visitors away from Yellowstone. Park County Commissioner Tim French, according to the Tribune, criticized the attempt to divert Yellowstone visitors to other parts of the region, highlighting road conditions in places like Sunlight.

“They’re tearing up our roads if we increase the traffic,” French told the commission. “Just let them go to the park.”

In the past, Park County officials have voiced concern over how road construction in the park—especially on the East Entrance road—will affect the number of visitors to the park. Currently, there is ongoing construction on a stretch of road between Fishing Bridge and Indian Pond, which promises delays of up to 30 minutes. Officials previously pushed for construction to be delayed until after the summer season.

Looking at Yellowstone’s road system more broadly, according to the Tribune, one fear among Park County officials is that, in response to consistently high visitor numbers, park officials will push for more busing or even a universal busing system in Yellowstone. Park County Engineer Brian Edwards, however, downplayed that possibility, citing the current difficulties in Yellowstone road upkeep and the importance of preserving Yellowstone’s character.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do in terms of upgrading or improving the roads themself,” Edwards said at a commission meeting in April. “For instance, if you were to try to build a four-lane or eight-lane highway, “pretty soon, Yellowstone’s not Yellowstone anymore,” Edwards said.

In addition to these talks, the Tribune reports the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee (which covers issues pertaining to state and federal lands in the Greater Yellowstone Area) has pitched forming a coalition to secure federal funding for park infrastructure.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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