As the world began to emerge from pandemic-lockdown this spring, public land managers in Wyoming predicted a banner year of visitation, particularly at the state’s iconic national parks.
Those prognostications are bearing out. Visitation to Yellowstone National Park through August is up 40% from 2020 and 15% from 2019. At Grand Teton National Park, 10 of the 12 most recent months ending in August set visitation records.
As millions of people stream through the parks, crowds fill campsites, queue in hours-long lines at popular destinations, clog highways ogling wildlife, jam trails and strain over-taxed infrastructure.
The issue isn’t new, but it has escalated as the pandemic magnified already growing interest in outdoor recreation. Now, federal policy makers are zeroing in on the dilemma as besieged parks from Maine to California experiment with user-management tools like timed-entry, shuttles and park reservations.
In Wyoming, park officials are watching those experiments with interest as they consider implementing their own solutions. Officials say, however, that they will be deliberate in striking the balance between two flagship principles: resource protection and visitor experience. But the issue is reaching a breaking point, some say.
“I think there’s no question that if visitation continues to trend the way it has, especially over these last couple of years, more aggressive visitor management actions are going to be necessary,” Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said.
Yellowstone is “watching what other parks are doing, lessons learned from how they’ve implemented certain systems,” Sholly said. The question, he said, is: “How do we take the best of some of those systems and build that into something for the future here?”
Public lands across Wyoming — and the country — have borne the impact of outdoor recreation’s growing popularity and the pandemic-fueled rush to spend time in the relative safety of wide-open spaces.
The phenomenon is perhaps most high-profile at national parks, where a 2016 centennial celebration and marketing campaign only added interest. Managers have struggled with the challenge of so many visitors. Arches National Park in Utah has to close its gates on a regular basis to manage crowds, while Glacier in Montana recently implemented a ticketing system for its popular Going-To-the-Sun-Road. Crowds have flooded gateway communities and overwhelmed park staff, according to reports.
As two of the country’s most visited national parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton and their gateway communities are vulnerable to the negative impacts of too many people, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. These include everything from crumbling infrastructure to increased litter and housing crunches in nearby communities.
“I think it’s acutely happening in Grand Teton and Yellowstone,” she said. “I think what we’re all seeing right now is the bucket list is getting checked off by a lot of families, and so those big parks are all getting incredibly high visitation, and so we need to start preparing for it.”
At Grand Teton, the smaller of the two parks occupying northwest Wyoming, monthly visitation numbers have broken records most of the year.
“Overall visitation to Grand Teton is up about 27% from 10 years ago,” Superintendent Chip Jenkins said. “So 10 years ago we had about 2.6 million visitors, and we are expecting to be, you know, somewhere between 3.5 and 4 [million] this year.”
Trail use and campground numbers are up, Jenkins said. More people are in the backcountry. Shoulder seasons are seeing increases.
And “it’s not all about numbers,” Jenkins said, “it’s also that we’re seeing really different patterns. And we’re also really seeing different visitors.”
Among them are outdoor newbies who aren’t necessarily familiar with wildlife etiquette or leave-no-trace ethics, he said, or who are more prone to being unprepared, necessitating rescue or medical assistance. So far in 2021 there have been 70 search and rescue missions in GTNP, Jenkins said — a jump from the mid-2000s, when the park would average 50 annually. Illegal camping is up, parking has become an issue in high-traffic areas and staff have reported an uptick in “rude behavior,” Jenkins said.
The upshot of all this, Jenkins said, is that as the crowds grow, so do the park’s needs for education, interpretation and management. Staff, meanwhile, is not growing commensurately.
“Over the last 10 years our budget has remained largely flat and staffing levels were largely the same,” Jenkins said. “The impacts in terms of staffing and operations, it’s not just the larger numbers of visitors, but it’s the fact that visitation is different, is having a greater impact on our staffing.”
There are known areas of friction, Jenkins said. The Lupine Meadows parking lot fits 110 cars, “but we can have three or four times that amount of cars parked along the road, yet we only have one bathroom.” At other areas, like Jenny Lake, vehicles overflow the parking lot and line up along the road for two miles, Jenkins said.
The park has been experimenting with management tools, Jenkins said, such as limiting vehicles to one in, one out at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve and managing camping with a by-reservation-only system.
But instead of launching more dramatic park-wide actions this year, he said, “what we have really focused on is a range of efforts to try to collect both quantitative and qualitative information to help us try to understand” the situation.
That includes peak-season visitation studies to track traffic patterns, trail-use numbers and visitor experiences. Trail counters and scientists set up at certain high-traffic areas this summer to gather that data, which is now being compiled and crunched, Park Social Scientist Jennifer Newton said.
Until the park gets its arms around what exactly it’s dealing with, Jenkins said, it can’t know if strategies like shuttles or admission reservations are appropriate.
“And then based upon a deeper understanding of the problems, that will start to point towards possible solutions,” he said.
“Yellowstone is Yellowstone, you know,” NPCA’s Yellowstone Program Manager Dan Bailey said. “It’s the granddaddy of all national parks and people want to see it, and they’re gonna come see it.”
Are they ever.
Yellowstone National Park clocked 921,844 visits in August, the most-visited August on record. That followed the most-visited July on record and the most-visited June on record.
The park is on track to host 4.5 million visits in 2021, according to Superintendent Sholly — which would be its biggest visitation year ever.
Popularity is not a new phenomenon in Yellowstone. And it’s important to consider that most visitors don’t stray from Yellowstone’s road corridors and parking areas, which equate to less than 1,700 acres of the park’s 2.2 million acres, Sholly said.
“And so you got a very large number of people in a very small percentage of this park,” he said, adding that “the other thing that happens that people really need to be careful of is not to conflate traffic jams with resource impacts.”
But resource impacts are a serious consideration, he said, particularly in heavily congested areas of Old Faithful, Midway Geyser Basin, Norris, Canyon rims and Lamar Valley.
Near the very popular Grand Prismatic pool, Sholly said, “A temporary parking lot was put in [there] to try to provide more parking in 2017 and that’s led to a lot of human waste and litter … So we tried to solve a problem there by adding the parking lot, but we didn’t build the infrastructure supporting the parking lot like trash cans and bathrooms.”
In YNP’s areas of congestion, the NPCA’s Bailey said, “they’re seeing impacts of pollution and they’re seeing impacts from too many people walking and you always hear stories about people getting off the boardwalks and trampling delicate geyser areas … [they] are seeing impacts to the resources for sure.”
Yellowstone has experimented with mitigation solutions. In 2019, the park piloted controlled-visitor access at Norris, and it initiated a shuttle feasibility study in 2020 between Old Faithful and Midway Geyser Basin. This summer, it launched an automated vehicle shuttle pilot at Canyon Village.
The park is also using data from visitor and transportation studies to inform decisions, Sholly said. With visitation growth showing no signs of abating, managers are considering more aggressive tools.
“I believe, for instance, Midway Geyser Basin is bad enough that we need to be taking very aggressive actions there, in the near future,” Sholly said. “I think that Norris is close to where we would take maybe timed-entry or maybe to move Norris to a reservation system.”
There are other issues to contemplate when considering annual visitation numbers that exceed the state’s entire population by a factor of seven, he said. Stagnant staff growth and outdated infrastructure are major concerns, as are ripple effects on gateway communities, visitor experiences, impacts on wildlife and increased search and rescue demands.
And while park officials are paying attention to management systems elsewhere, Sholly notes that with its vast area and five entrance gates, Yellowstone is unique.
“A one-size-fits-all reservation system, at this point, is not likely,” he said. “We’re going to look at some more sophisticated methods of managing visitation in certain areas.
“I think we’re being very strategic. I think that, first and foremost, the protection of the ecosystem and the resources of the park is our dominant priority. And that is not being compromised,” he added.
Management tools can address visitation, but most agree that solving staffing and infrastructure holes will require an influx of funds.
The Great American Outdoors Act, which earmarks $1.9 billion annually for five years for improvements at national parks and other areas, has helped, managers say. Under the act, more than $150,000 has been set aside for Yellowstone infrastructure projects in 2022 alone, according to a project list. These include bridge replacements and wastewater system updates.
Brengel of NPCA said several bills currently being debated in Congress — including infrastructure, transportation, reconciliation and appropriations — hold promising lifelines for staffing, transit and infrastructure funding. She sees two silver linings.
“One is that we got the Great American Outdoors bill passed and so people know the parks have crumbling infrastructure,” she said. “And then this added visitation and attraction people have for parks, I think Congress is now seeing all of this and saying, we need to add more funds to these bills.”
After all, she said, the goal is to allow people to fully experience the parks’ wonders.
“One of the things that I always worry about with Yellowstone is that if you spend all the money to have your once-in-a-lifetime visit there but you can’t hear the splashing of the geyser, you’re kind of missing out on part of the awesomeness of the park,” Brengel said. “If you’re on the boardwalk at Old Faithful with, you know, 10,000 of your best friends, you’re not going to have the same quality of experience as if you could actually hear the geyser.”
This piece first appeared at WyoFile, and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. Top photo: Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile