Wenk: Visitation management is next major Yellowstone issue

Monday, August 13, 2018

Photo by Neal Herbert/National Park Service

Crowds swarm outside the Old Faithful Visitor Center Aug. 18, 2015, in Yellowstone National Park.

With a record-breaking number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park in recent years, outgoing Superintendent Dan Wenk said the park will have to take action to manage visitation in the near future.

Saying more study is needed, Wenk raised several ideas: setting a daily limit on visitation, regulating the number of cars that enter per hour, and shuttle systems in some parts of the park. He said he has made the study of visitor use a priority for his last weeks on the job.

“We cannot propose a solution until we understand the intended and unintended consequences,” he said.

Yellowstone has seen a fairly steady escalation of visits since it began keeping visitation records in 1904, when it counted 13,727 annual visitors. It first hit the million visitor mark in 1948, the 2 million mark in 1965, and the 3 million mark in 1992. In 2015, the park recorded more than 4 million visitors for the first time.

Just since 2008, annual visitation has increased by more than 40 percent, but staffing and funding levels have remained about the same.

“Visitor use management is the next major issue for this park, and for (incoming Superintendent) Cam Sholly, to face,” said Wenk.

He called it “the emerging issue that is going to determine the long-term future of Yellowstone.”

Wenk, who is retiring Sept. 29, made the remarks during a press conference last Thursday, in which he reflected on his accomplishments at the park as well as issues that will challenge his successors in years to come.

In June, Wenk, who has been Yellowstone superintendent since 2011, submitted a request to retire rather than face reassignment to become regional director of the National Capital Region in Washington, D.C., but was told by the Trump administration he had to leave his post by August or retire right away. The September retirement date was agreed on by officials at the Department of Interior and the National Park Service.

Wenk said he doesn’t think there is a problem with how many visitors come to the park on a yearly basis, but rather the trouble lies in the escalating numbers of visitors that descend on the park during certain highvisitation periods. For example, in 2016 the park counted almost 4.3 million annual visitors, but nearly a quarter of those visitors — some 995,917 — came to the park in July alone.

“Me and my successor are going to have to grapple with that,” he said.

“I don’t know what will work best,” he said, “but we’re going to have to manage visitation in the future.”

 

‘It’s like a zoo’

An ever-increasing number of people visiting Yellowstone means more damage to the park’s natural resources, more garbage, more traffic and just more issues, said Amy Beegel, founder and lead tour guide of Easy Tours Yellowstone, based out of West Yellowstone.

“It’s like a zoo in there any more,” Beegel said.

Beegel started as a guide 30 years ago but said the biggest change has been in the past five to six years.

“The increase has been so fast, it’s become extremely noticeable,” she said.

Beegel said she has noticed even more people disrupting the park, whether by taking artifacts from thermal areas, stepping off of boardwalks or leaving garbage all over the place.

Beegel also said traffic has become much worse, with people screaming and fighting in parking lots and lines of cars being delayed for hours because of animal sightings or traffic accidents.

She often gets calls from people looking for half-day tours, but she has to turn them down because it’s just not possible with all of the traffic, Beegel said.

Yellowstone National Park spokesman Neal Herbert said the increased visitation puts a strain on park staff and resources.

Between 2014 and 2016, Herbert said the park saw an 89 percent increase in motor vehicle accidents with injury and a 60 percent increase in emergency medical service transports in the park.

And, because of traffic jams, “it can be hard for our rangers and emergency crews to respond to incidents,” he said.

Ashea Mills, who has worked as a private guide in the park for 20 years, thinks that escalating visitation isn’t just an inconvenience for visitors — it’s also hurting the park.

“It’s not just longer lines at the bathroom and ‘bear jams,’” Mills said. “It’s becoming more difficult to find that solace in Yellowstone.”

Mills said as a guide, she often tells people who are getting too close to animals to back up, though it seems people are less receptive than they were 20 years ago.

“I see animals being harassed regularly,” she said.

Mills also said bear jams and the herd mentality of people stopping their cars to see any animal changes the nature of the park.

“It mitigates our understanding of what wilderness is,” Mills said. “When you have a wildlife sighting in which there are literally hundreds of people crowding in on a single animal, it mitigates the wildness of that animal. I’m shocked at how tolerant the animals are.”

Mills said she often won’t bring up archaeological sites on tours anymore, to protect them from too much visitation.

“One of the first things I was told when I started working as a guide 20 years ago this summer was keep your secrets — in reference to nests specifically, but also more sensitive places in the park,” said Mills.

“There are no secrets in Yellowstone anymore,” she said. “Social media has changed that.”

 

Solutions?

The three ideas Wenk raised — setting a limit on visitation, regulating cars per hour and shuttle systems — each come with their own pros and cons.

To Mills, it’s important that the park maintain access to both locals and people who can’t afford to plan ahead or pay for private tours.

“When you’re talking about limitations, it’s a real drag because when you start limiting visitation you create a situation where the only people who can get in are the people who can afford to plan ahead,” Mills said.

Mills thinks local shuttles could be a potential solution — with people parking at the Canyon visitor center, then taking a shuttle to the rims of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or parking at the Old Faithful parking lot and being shuttled around the Old Faithful area.

When it comes to shuttles from communities into the park, Mills said one issue is how much stuff people want to bring and that people often come in one entrance and leave through another.

“It’s a difficult place because people come in with fly-fishing gear, camping gear, coolers and strollers,” Mills said.

Beegel agrees shuttles are a good idea, especially from West Yellowstone to busy places in the park like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Old Faithful.

“Why wouldn’t you just try it? You have to try something,” Beegel said.

Beegel said she’s noticed the park’s funding and personnel hasn’t kept up with increased usage. She will often call in traffic jams to the park to make sure they know they are happening.

“That’s where us guides are kind of taking their role, keeping people away from bison and making sure they stay on boardwalks,” she said.

Because of that, Beegel suggested the park push people toward local tour companies, who know the park and help make sure it’s used responsibly, in order to cut back on traffic and increase safety.

She likened limiting visitation to a bar or restaurant having to turn away people because of a fire code.

This year, the Livingston Chamber of Commerce started a shuttle service from Livingston to Gardiner, designed to help tourists from Livingston hotels get down near the park, where they can meet up with private tours. The shuttle is also helpful for people who work in Gardiner but live in Livingston.

Chamber Executive Director Leslie Feigel said the shuttle hasn’t gotten too much traffic so far, but the chamber is still committed to it.

Feigel said a park-wide shuttle system could benefit Livingston because it might attract visitors who are nervous about driving in the park in the winter.

Before making any visitor management decisions, the park should make sure the process is public and open, Beegel said.

“I just don’t want to see them get so drastic they come up with a plan so fast that they end up hurting people,” she said.