New park superintendent discusses shared issues with county

Johnathan Hettinger —
Friday, November 30, 2018
Article Image Alt Text

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly speaks to the Park County Commission at the City-County Complex on Thursday. Sholly and the commission spoke about visitation, the Gardiner Airport and other issues that affect both the park and the county.

Communication with gateway communities is key to solving issues facing Gardiner, Cooke City, Park County and Yellowstone National Park.

That was the message that Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly brought Thursday to his first meeting with the Park County Commission.

Whether it be housing, safety in bison hunts, use of the Gardiner Airport or providing law enforcement in Cooke City, Park County and Yellowstone have many shared interests, which Sholly and commissioners discussed during the meeting.

Five weeks into the job, Sholly has noticed that Gardiner changed since he went to high school there over 30 years ago, when his father was chief ranger.

“Gardiner is a lot different than it was 20 to 30 years ago,” Sholly said.

Commissioner Steve Caldwell agreed.

“It’s a lot different than it was even eight to 10 years ago,” Caldwell said.

Sholly said increasing visitation — even in the past five years — has been great for getting people to appreciate the National Park Service, but that it has stressed the park and surrounding communities.

The park has no more employees than it did. Lines accumulate at entrances, restrooms and on roads behind bison. Housing is an issue — both inside and outside the park. The visitors have impacts on the natural resources.

Sholly said he doesn’t anticipate visitation to continue to increase the next five years the way it did the past five years, but the park is looking at how and where people use the park, including by having anonymous cell phone data that can tell them where people are at what times of year and how many people there are.

“We’ve got incredible data on times and lines,” Sholly said. “There are clearly resource impacts, but we need to do a better job of quantifying those impacts.”

Commissioner Bill Berg said it’s a “quality-of-life” issue for people in Park County.

Though Sholly has previously said he was not thinking about capping visitation, he didn’t rule out that option Thursday, instead saying that there are other solutions, including a shuttle service from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful.

“There’s a lot we can do to deal with the problem before looking at visitor limitations,” Sholly said.

But if the park were to look at limiting visitation, it wouldn’t come as a surprise, Sholly said.

“Whether we get to something more, you have my assurance that we’ll sit down and have those conversations with you — the gateway communities,” he said.

Beyond visitation, the commission also discussed the Gardiner Airport, saying that it cannot afford to do much maintenance at the air strip north of town, and it would like for the Park Service to chip in because it’s the highest user of the airport, which Sholly said he would consider.

“My hope would be to keep the airport there,” Sholly said. “It’s an important part of wildlife management.”

Sholly also pledged to build new employee housing in the park and help work with Gardiner to discuss other housing issues.

Berg also raised some safety concerns about the bison hunt in Beattie Gulch. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said they would help oversee that, but it’s become a burden on the Park County Sheriff’s Department, said Commissioner Clint Tinsley. The commission recommended Sholly meet with Park County Sheriff Scott Hamilton after the meeting.

“We’re seeing less and less of that help,” said Tinsley.

Sholly said that many of the specific issues that Park County and Yellowstone face should be considered on a “case-by-case” basis going forward, and he looks forward to continuing those conversations.