Yellowstone National Park is known for its geysers, not its garbage.
Yet the roughly 3 million visitors to the park each year generate about 4,000 tons of trash.
Thanks to Jim Evanoff, the park’s environmental protection specialist, Yellowstone has become a regional and national leader in diverting a large portion of that garbage from landfills.
“In the last nine years or so, Jim’s been focused predominantly on making Yellowstone a greener place when it comes to environmental sustainability,” said Steve Iobst, deputy superintendent of Yellowstone.
Many of the sustainability projects have been funded through partnerships with corporations, universities and private businesses assembled by the Yellowstone Park Foundation, the park’s nonprofit fundraising arm. Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs concession operations in the park, has been a valued partner in making its operations more earth friendly.
Plastic pop bottles thrown in a trash can in Yellowstone now go to a Georgia company that recycles them into carpet backing. Glass bottles are crushed in Livingston and used as sand. Food waste is composted at a plant outside West Yellowstone and used in landscaping projects. Fry oil from food operations is now burned in boilers at Mammoth and Old Faithful. And alternative fuels are used in park vehicles.
Evanoff also has overseen other sustainability initiatives — such as recycling of small propane cylinders and bear spray canisters.
The diversion of garbage from landfills just made sense to Evanoff because parks are all about preserving natural resources. Yet most of the nation’s parks have no one like Evanoff to coordinate such projects, he said.
And by the end of this week, Yellowstone will no longer have Evanoff. He is retiring.
“We’re going to miss him a lot,” said Karen Kress, president of the Yellowstone Park Foundation. “He’s been instrumental in Yellowstone environmental stewardship programs.”
Iobst said it’s uncertain whether Evanoff’s position will be filled, although the park plans to continue working on the projects in which he was involved.
Kress said it’s imperative that the park have a person like Evanoff on staff.
“There’s going to be a lot of work to be done and Jim won’t be there,” she said. “He was Mr. Sustainability.”
In his 32 years with the National Park Service, Evanoff has moved across the West, including a job that allowed him to rappel off the top of Mount Rushmore to clean the presidential faces carved there. For the past 24 years, he’s worked at Yellowstone. And 20 years ago, he “kinda created” his new position after being hired on to the park’s maintenance and operations division.
“The park gave me the latitude to do what I wanted and never said stop, so I kept on going,” he said Friday.
Evanoff, an energetic, trim, white-haired 60-year-old, sat down following a presentation to the Yellowstone Business Partnership at Rock Creek Resort, south of Red Lodge. His talk to the group covered a variety of issues underlined with a main theme of how the park’s management of wildlife, natural resources and visitors has changed dramatically since the park was created in 1872.
What was seen as bad back in the early years of the park — such as wolves and grizzly bears — are now believed to be key to balancing the ecosystem’s wildlife. And some things that were seen as good back then — such as feeding bears refuse from hotels and roadside garbage dumps for visitors’ entertainment — are no longer allowed.
“Yellowstone was the world’s first national park, so we want to be the first to do the right thing,” Evanoff said.
Surrounding national forests and national wildlife refuges have joined in where Yellowstone has led. Together, they have created a group to focus solely on sustainability in the entire ecosystem.
“We just completed what has never been attempted, a greenhouse gas emissions inventory,” he said.
“We developed and produced an action plan to mitigate or reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and reduce fuel consumption.”
As Yellowstone has taken bold environmental steps, Evanoff said gateway communities have eventually followed, realizing that similar ventures are in their best interest.
Looking to the future, Evanoff said Yellowstone National Park’s biggest environmental challenge will be educating the millions of annual visitors to the park in only a day-and-a-half — the average stay for most tourists — on environmental stewardship.
“You don’t have a lot of time,” Evanoff said.
But if those national and international visitors can leave more informed, sustainability has a chance of being sowed in other regions.
“If we can do it with our high elevation, remoteness and access issues, don’t tell me that someplace in Iowa can’t do it, too,” he said.
Even though he’s retiring, Evanoff promised to stay engaged in environmental issues and possibly do some consulting as well as a little log furniture building.
But he has mixed emotions about leaving his career. He still loves putting on the Park Service uniform. And Evanoff said there’s nothing like standing along the Old Faithful boardwalk on a summer day as a crowd of hundreds gathers to watch “their” geyser erupt.
“If I miss it, I’ll do something about it,” he said.