As we crept along the 14-mile stretch of Yellowstone National Park between between Madison Junction and West Yellowstone at a Los Angeles rush-hour clip, I felt like one of those stereotypical TV dads who glares into the rearview mirror and threatens to pull over and "give you something to cry about," and the inconsolable kid in the back seat that seemed likely to explode without an injection of mac-and-cheese wasn't even mine. As cars stretched out ahead of us—all in various stages of slow motion—I was on my last nerve and the little girl in the back seat was busy sawing at it with rusty steak knife.
Gridlock. In a national park. No, the national park—the first of its kind, and, even today, one of the most stunning landscapes on the planet. It's gorgeous and full of wonders. And it's inherently a peaceful place, where that peace is only meant to be interrupted by natural drama. Or the tug of a fat Firehole brown trout or, as was the case with our little group earlier that day, the rises of uncountable brook trout from a willow-shrouded roadside creek that's perfect for kids. When they were in a better mood, obviously.
But that's not the case anymore. Human-inflicted drama in the forms of traffic and congestion are contributing some stress to the park, its irreplaceable resources and the people who visit.
In that 90-minute drive—yes, 90 minutes to make a drive that would normally take 20—between Madison Junction and the Wild West in West Yellowstone where the mac-and-cheese IV was connected to the suddenly happy-as-a-clam child, realization set in. This isn't the Yellowstone I'm accustomed to. It's either over-used or under-equipped (and the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle). It's not meant to handle all these people in all their cars and all their impacts.
The good news is that the National Park Service realizes there's a problem. The bad news is, there's not much it can do, at least in the short term, to mitigate the impacts of more than 4 million visitors to the park every year. In just the last two years, the impacts of a steadily increasing visitation rate have found their way into three separate National Park Service reports.
Park visitation continues to increase, generally, year over year–it hit 4 million in 2015, and has remained steady since, hitting a record in 2016, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, when 4.25 million visitors pushed the through the entrance gates. And the vast majority—it's not even close at 78 percent—come to Yellowstone in their private vehicles.
Anecdotally, that's painfully obvious (and, yes, I was part of the "problem"). We eventually realized that the traffic jam between Madison and West that early-August evening was because someone had spotted a raghorn bull elk on the side of the road at just about the same time most park visitors are headed back to the entrance communities to their hotels and for dinner. It's the perfect storm, and nobody really cares how many cranky kids are stuck in back seats and car seats in a traffic jam that stretches a good 10 miles when, 15 feet off the road, wildlife simply stares back at you and offers you every chance to fill the frame of your point-and-shoot Fuji.
But what can be done, realistically?
"The short answer is that we don't know yet," said Neal Herbert, spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park. "Everything is on the table."
Well, not everything. Just this past week, new Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly—who replaced recently retired Dan Wenk—told Montana Gov. Steve Bullock that he wouldn't entertain a cap on visitation to the park. Sholly is stepping into a position that's been rife with controversy over the last few months. Wenk publicly claimed last summer that he was forced out of the park's top job because of his wildlife advocacy.
"Everything you do in Yellowstone is controversial and thank God – it's because people care," Wenk told The Mountain Journal in June. "People care so passionately about everything."
But the traffic and the pressure on the park's infrastructure persisted under Wenk—Sholly is just the next in line to have to deal with it. And how to improve park traffic flow and congestion is a tricky proposition, largely because, park visitors, according to a 2016 study, don't want to be limited in terms of where in the park they can go, or how they can get there.
The Yellowstone National Park Visitor Use Study, completed in 2016, declares that only a third of park visitors would support the mandatory use of park shuttle buses to transport visitors to high-traffic areas during peak times. Nearly half of all park visitors strongly opposed this notion. Voluntary shuttle service? Nearly 90 percent support the idea, but, realistically, how many would use it?
The solutions, according to those park visitors polled in the 2016 study? More pull-outs. More parking in high-traffic areas. More infrastructure. The proposals that, in any way, might limit access to attractions like geyser basins, hot springs, waterfalls and the like were greeted with, to be kind, a lukewarm response. It's almost as if visitors are saying something like, "I think it would be a great idea if other visitors took the tour bus to Old Faithful, but that's not something I want to do."
Traffic and congestion
The same summer the NPS polled visitors about their park experiences, it also took a look at traffic in Yellowstone, a clear indication that there are challenges that need to be addressed. While no hard-and-fast solutions have been reached, there were a number of key findings that might offer hints at what visitors can expect—or at least should expect—in the years to come, particularly if visitation remains stable to continues to increase, as patterns predict.
This Transportation and Vehicle Mobility Study for Yellowstone National Park was largely focused on data collection and a general level of analysis related to interpreting the results of data collection and observations at the park during the 2016 study period. Based on trends over the last few years, it is anticipated that visitation to the park will continue to increase annually and that problems pertaining to visitation patterns at key destinations in the park, influxes of large tour groups, and pressures on certain roadway segments and parking areas will continue to intensify. As such, we recommend that the park proceed to take increasing levels of action in an adaptive management approach to proactively address these issues.
— Transportation and Vehicle Mobility Study, 2016
That's the verbiage labeled, "Highest Priority Recommendations" included in the study. "Adaptive management," despite the NPS declaration that it would be used to "proactively address" the traffic challenges, is inherently reactive. But, noting that, as soon as 2020, "increasing visitation to the park could lead to unacceptable conditions," the NPS recognized the dire need—within the next three years or so—to collect more data and analyze certain corridors.
Herbert says the Park Service gets it.
"Where there's a complete breakdown of people being able to move," he said, there's a clear need for action. But what will the action look like?
That's going to depend on what further analysis brings, Herbert said. "There's a lot to consider. Everything from the impacts to wildlife and the geological features have to be taken into account."
He noted that the park's already congested state during peak summertime visitation is taking a toll on everything from roadside vegetation, which is being trampled by visitors who feel they're forced to park in unofficial parking spots, to serious impacts to the park's storied wildlife and its unique geological and geothermal features. Just this last summer, one visitor—apparently on a national park bad-behavior bender—was arrested for harassing bison (and was lucky to escape with his life); another was arrested for apparently urinating into the vent at Old Faithful; and still another was caught on video trying to soak his feet in a hot spring.
These kinds of stunts aren't new, but they do seem to be on the rise—that makes sense, given increased visitor numbers. These impacts, while not specifically measured in either the traffic study or the visitor use study, did get some mention in the 2017 State of Yellowstone Vital Signs and Select Park Resources report.
And, that report might be the most important of all, given that it addresses some issues that supercede traffic and congestion—heady stuff, like suffering stream hydrology due to earlier snowmelt; longer and more severe fire seasons; longer growing seasons and a change in plant species composition (you know, animal food); among other changes that mankind is causing on a much grander scale than just how many cars we're driving on the Grand Loop Road.
The park's travel study did confirm something NPS officials suspected—the corridor between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful (and that includes the 14-mile stretch from hell
between Madison and West) is the most heavily used corridor in the park. It's followed closely by the Madison to Norris to Canyon to Fishing Bridge corridor. Considered together, this is now what's known as the park's "C-corridor," because of its shape when viewed on the park's map. Of note to anglers, it's also home to the Firehole, Gibbon, Madison and Yellowstone rivers, as well as countless smaller fisheries and trailheads leading to other backcountry lakes and streams.
During the 2106 study, the "C" corridor of the park's road system saw nearly 5,000 vehicles at peak visitation times. It's official capacity, according to the Park Service? Not quite 4,000—this highly used section of road is already 38 percent over capacity, the NPS claims in the report. Overall, the park has a vehicle capacity for 11,400 vehicles. During the 2016 study, peak roadway volume in the park is about 9,000 vehicles.
"In other words, if traffic distributed equally throughout the entire park, the park could theoretically absorb 27 percent more traffic on its roadways during peak season conditions," the report reads. "However, traffic does not distribute equally throughout the park. There is more traffic in popular areas of the park, placing a higher demand on roadways and parking capacity in these areas. The more popular areas of the park are already over capacity under current conditions during peak season."
As noted above, it's not just about traffic, obviously. Parking—particularly overflow parking at geyser basins, waterfalls and other attractions—contributes just as much to the congestion, if not more, than roads bursting with slowly moving vehicles. Savvy park visitors know when cars are parked on the side of the road, they're parked because their drivers and passengers are likely looking at something worth seeing—a grizzly bear, maybe a moose or, at the very least, some particularly photogenic bison (side note: according to the Visitor Use Study, the most desired animal tourists wish to see is, surprisingly, the bison, not the park's fabled bruins). So, naturally, they slow down and gawk, hoping to see what the others are seeing. Increasingly, however, cars are parked along the road not because of wildlife sightings, but because parking areas in high-traffic destinations are simply full.
In the "C-corridor," there is a parking capacity of 1,900 vehicles. During peak visitation times, there are about 2,450 parked vehicles in this section alone, meaning there are 550 vehicles—cars, trucks, RVs, buses, etc.— parked in unofficial overflow areas, including on the side of the roads, which obviously impacts traffic.
Parkwide, things aren't as dire, with about 7,400 total parking spots, and, during peak times, about 5,750 parked cars. But, again, congested, high-traffic areas are already about 30 percent over capacity.
Too many international visitors?
I live in Idaho Falls, about two hours in normal traffic from the entrance gate in West Yellowstone. I’ve marveled for years at the sheer numbers of tour buses bursting with international visitors stopping in Idaho Falls en route to Yellowstone—they clamor off the coaches and wander around downtown, snapping photos of the falls, doing a bit of shopping and maybe taking in a meal or two. Their visits are short, they drop some cash into our local economy and they generally don’t make a fuss.
But it’s easier for some to point blame at the park’s international visitors than assume that, by driving their own vehicle to the park’s high-interest destinations, they are likely more problematic.
That stressful evening back in West Yellowstone, it was clear that I wasn’t the only driver with frazzled nerves. As we waited to be seated at the Wild West for some pizza and, of course, the heal-all mac and cheese, one gentleman decided I looked worthy of sharing his perspective on the international visitors in the park.
“It’s all the damn Chinese,” he said. “Everywhere we went today, we were crowded out by them. They have no sense of personal space. They’re just rude. And the roads are so full of rental cars. It was just crazy.”
I reminded him that, for the most part, the Asian visitors are coming to Yellowstone via tour bus, not renting cars. I’m sure some do, but I would be shocked if the number even registers as significant. As for personal space issues, I made a point to let the guy know that, when we saw a tour bus at a destination, we understood that it would be crowded. We either braved the crowds, or drove on.
So when I asked Herbert about the impacts of international visitors—particularly the Asian contingent that is catching some heat (at least anecdotally)—he was quick to respond.
“Honestly,” he said, “I was surprised by the 2016 study when it revealed that only a small portion of the park’s international visitors were Asian. I would have guessed it would have been much higher.”
So I checked out the report. Visitors from 25 countries comprised only 17 percent of the park’s annual visitation in 2016. Of that 17 percent, nearly half — 49 percent — came from European countries. Only 34 percent came from China.
So much for that theory.
What are the potential solutions?
Considering that the clear source of the off-the-charts traffic in the park has been revealed as the single-family vehicle, I asked Herbert to speculate.
"Knowing what you know," I asked, "what will visiting Yellowstone look like in five years? Ten years?"
"I can't speculate," he said. "We're still collecting data, and we're still piecing together some potential solutions."
The solutions, though, are already being seen in other national parks where increased visitation has essentially forced the Park Service's hand. Scott Christensen, deputy director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, notes that Zions National Park in Utah is already on a bus-only entrance system, and that Glacier National Park actively warns visitors entering the park at peak use times that they may not be able to find a parking spot.
"It's definitely a burgeoning issue in Yellowstone," Christensen said. He noted that Wenk, before he retired at the end of summer, had recognized the challenges that are coming with 4-plus million visitors coming to the park every year and wasn't afraid broach the idea of visitor limits during peak times.
And, as Christensen notes, it's a resource issue.
"At some point, you have to ask, 'Is the park's leadership going to be forward-thinking on this issue?' or are we just going to do do what we've always done, which is to pave over more of the resources and add more infrastructure, more hotels and more impacts on the park and its wildlife?"
As noted earlier, a host of potential access solutions were offered to those polled in the 2016 Visitor Use Study. Understanding that traffic and congestion are having a significant impact on the park, its ecology and its geologic/geothermal features, visitors polled seemed to get the need for change, but they also didn't seem to want to be a part of it.
Consider the following:
- 87 percent of those polled thought offering voluntary shuttle-bus transportation to high-use areas in the park during peak visitation hours would be a great idea. But only 33 percent of those polled got behind the notion of requiring shuttle-bus transportation to high-use areas during peak hours.
- Visitors love the idea of more parking at scenic attractions; 68 percent support that idea.
- The same is true for more pull-outs at scenic locations; 74 percent think that's a great idea.
When the Park Service suggested some solutions that might make it harder to see popular attractions at peak-visitation times, visitors balked.
- Only 39 percent of visitors supported the idea of diverting traffic away from popular attractions when they were at or above capacity.
- Only 38 percent supported the notion of having to get a day-use reservation to enter the park during peak visitation times.
- Only 35 percent thought limiting the numbers of visitors entering the park during peak time was a good idea.
- Only 17 percent thought that temporarily closing park roads during times of high congestion was worth considering.
Christensen hearkened back to a family visit to Glacier National Park recently, and noted that he and his family drove into the park and, predictably, couldn't find a place to park to get out and see the natural wonders that make that park special.
"So the next day, we took the shuttle in," he said. "And it was great. We stopped wherever we wanted to stop, and we got on and off as often as we wanted."
Indeed, shuttle service in Glacier delivers buses to trailheads and attractions about every 15 minutes or so on the west side of the park, and every 40 minutes on the east side.
Looking forward five years in Yellowstone, Christensen said, it's easy to see that this is likely what needs to happen if the congestion in the park is to be alleviated. Even starting small-scale, mass-transit pilot programs in Yellowstone would be a good start, he said.
But will the Park Service, under the current regime, consider this?
"We're seeing bits and pieces of Yellowstone's future happening in other parks," he said, again citing Zions, and noting that officials at Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, are openly considering visitation caps—national parks infrastructure has not kept up with the demand of the national parks visitor.
"It's just a matter of how forward-thinking Yellowstone's leaders are willing to be," Christensen said. The easy choice, obviously, would be to build more parking, add more lanes to the roads and generally do what we've always done. But that, he said, isn't likely in the best interest of the park or its natural resources.
And, of course, infrastructure costs money—and national parks and public lands budgets have been sliced dramatically under the Trump administration. Given that the National Park Service is operating on a $2.6 billion annual budget in 2018—$300 million less than in 2017 thanks to budget cuts—a user-supported transit system might make the most sense. The current administration, with Secretary Ryan Zinke at the head of the Department of Interior and taking spending-cut marching orders from the top, isn't likely to propose spending money on more infrastructure in any park, even Yellowstone.
As a side note, the $2.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2018 is the same as the Park Service budget was in 2004—with inflation factored in, the government is operating its national parks on $800 million less today than it did 14 years ago. Is it any wonder the user experience isn't what is used to be?
Say what you will, but, as an angler who visits the park at a regular clip, usually starting sometime around opening day in late May and finishing up on the Firehole and Madison toward the end of October, you can count me among the few who wouldn't mind letting a tour bus driver do the majority of the work. Think about it. If the right approach was taken to address Yellowstone's congestion, an angler could hop on the bus with his or her gear in tow, and hop off at any given pullout or trailhead to fish. When the day is up? Catch the bus for the trip to the car in West Yellowstone, and still be at the Wild West in time for a beer or three.
A bit more hassle? Maybe, but if it reduces traffic, better protects the park's resources and still allows ready access, what's the rub? The inability to reach into the cooler and grab a snack? The inability to go exactly where you want to go when you want to be there, regardless of the traffic and the parking and overall negative impact on perhaps the most sacred swath of public land on earth?
Maybe we should be a bit less selfish, no?
It might be time to make some sacrifices, for the sake of Yellowstone itself.