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Yellowstone visitors

Tourists continue to visit Yellowstone National Park in huge numbers, 4.1 million last year, driving the economy of towns that surround the park.

One trait common to most Yellowstone-area visitors and residents could be the key to finding a solution to greater crowding and all of the problems it brings — a love of the region.

“We all have a stake in protecting and using the wild areas around us,” said Bozeman motorcycle rider Ed Guza.

What that protection might look like is open to discussion, but ideally it would be based on a common understanding of what areas are being used, by whom and when. What impact is that use having on the environment and wildlife? Unfortunately, answers to such questions are difficult to find.

Seeking clues

Brooke Regan, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, had a hard time finding data on recreation use in the region.

“There’s very little recreational data,” said Brooke Regan, special projects organizer for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman-based conservation group. “It’s coarse. It can only tell you that more people are visiting.”

In search of answers, Regan scanned everything from enrollment in the National Outdoor Leadership School — based in Lander, Wyoming — to Yellowstone National Park’s annual visitation statistics. She even examined public postings on cellphone apps that show a cyclist's or hiker's trail use.

“There isn’t good data on recreation,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman. “But we do know that nationwide it’s massive, 2 percent of (gross domestic product). Twice the size of mining. This is a massive industry, yet we don’t know where it’s going.”

Eclipse traffic jam

Traffic comes to a standstill in Wyoming's Shirley Basin last August as throngs of people attempted to travel south on Wyoming Highway 487 after watching the eclipse. 

Big money

Across the United States, Rasker said national park visitation has gone up 21 percent. Last year, when the National Park Service was celebrating its centennial, an advertising campaign urged American citizens to find their park.

“Many Yellowstone employees were saying privately, ‘Just don’t find this one,’ or ‘they already found it,’” said Christina White, outdoor recreation planner for Yellowstone.

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — the larger area that surrounds and includes the park — the 4.1 million visitors to the park created about 7,300 jobs for surrounding communities, spent $498.8 million in those towns and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $629.6 million, according to the National Park Service.

In Montana, tourists generated an estimated $3.4 billion in travel spending in 2017, according to a report by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. In Wyoming, tourism boosted by the allure of the 2017 solar eclipse poured $3.5 billion into the economy, according to the 2017 Wyoming Travel Impacts Report.

Some of those same solar eclipse tourists traveled to Grand Teton National Park where 3.3 million recreational visitors spent $590 million in surrounding communities, according to a National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey study.

"National park tourism is a significant driver in the national economy, returning $10 for every $1 invested in the National Park Service, and it is a big factor in our local economy as well," said David Vela, Grand Teton National Park superintendent, in a press release.

At capacity

All those people pumping all of that money into a relatively small region specifically for recreation is bound to create some conflicts.

By 2023, all roads in Yellowstone are expected to exceed capacity if the park sees only modest 3 percent growth each year, White said. Already 29 percent of the park’s roads are over capacity.

More people has meant more damage to resources, an 850 percent increase in motor vehicle rollovers, and a 129 percent increase in search and rescue responses, she added.

“The emergency responders are working back-to-back incidents and more serious incidents,” White said, noting that the car wrecks and other tragedies have increased stress for those employees, resulting in staff burnout and turnover.

“One of the biggest challenges is road corridors,” said Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear management specialist, even though those roads account for only about 1 percent of the entire park. “It takes a lot of management time” to keep tourists and wildlife safely separated at bear, bison and elk jams.

Fee hike

Raising national park entrance fees has been suggested as one way to reduce visitation, but when Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke suggested a sizable hike last year the public responded with a resounding no. Although fees will go up by $5 to $35 per vehicle this year, the rate of increase was a dramatic cut from the originally proposed $40 hike for vehicles entering Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks.

“We definitely think there needs to be some (visitation) caps,” Gunther said. “But it has to be in a way that works with the gateway communities” since the park is the lifeblood of surrounding towns like West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City in Montana; Cody and Jackson in Wyoming.

“No matter what we charge, people will keep coming,” Gunther said. “No matter how high we raise the price.”


A black bear walks along the road near Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park on May 2. More tourists means more encounters between the park's wildlife and humans.

‘Hot spots’

One of the concerns raised in Regan’s research is that human recreation use tends to overlap with prime wildlife habitat and migration corridors in places like the Wyoming towns of Jackson and Cody, as well as around Montana's Big Sky and Bozeman communities. She called them “hot spots.”

“To love a place to death, that’s the paradox we undertake every day,” said Dave Laufenberg, a Montana State University grad student and trail runner. “That’s tough to figure out.”

Two opportunities Laufenberg sees are: seasonal recreational travel restrictions across the landscape to protect wildlife and the resource; and a tax on recreationists to help fund trail and conservation work. Taxing recreationists would have the added benefit of providing them a “seat at the table” on legislative matters, much like anglers and hunters already can claim by paying taxes on their gear that funds wildlife and fisheries management, he added.

Regan sees the issue as an educational one, similar to the Leave No Trace ethics that provide rules on backcountry camping and use.

“We need to develop a culture for how we recreate in the outdoors,” she said. “We need a Leave No Trace 2.0 that says how we together are acting in our shared place.”

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