Bull and cow elk

A bull elk bugles in Yellowstone Park on a snowy September morning.

Visitors love Yellowstone National Park. They enjoyed it even though they were stuck in bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic from West Yellowstone to Madison Junction. Most still rated their experience good or excellent, even though they had trouble finding parking near major front country features, such as Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin.

That’s a key finding of a visitor survey conducted for the National Park Service in 2018 and released publicly last week.

Do the survey results mean YNP is doing great and there’s no urgency to improve the park for visitors?

Absolutely not.

Credit the efforts of the understaffed park and the incomparable Yellowstone natural wonders for making most vacationers happy. But all is not well in the park that saw annual visitation grow by nearly 1 million without commensurate increase in staff and funding for operations and maintenance. The park maintenance backlog is hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements to road, ridges and parking lots that are constantly being broken up by increased traffic, extreme temperatures fluctuations and geothermal activity.  Historic structures and visitor centers need repairs, yet renovation has been delayed year after year for lack of funds. The park lacks adequate resources for the 4 million visitors it has welcomed this year and for the 3,438 square miles of public land it is responsible for protecting.

The the 2018 Yellowstone Visitor Use Survey found that 85% of 4,000 respondents rated their park experience good or excellent. About 67% of respondents were first time Yellowstone visitors, and those first-timers were less likely than repeat visitors to have complaints.

Among the takeaways the survey listed as key are:

  • Respondents generally are not frustrated, have high experience ratings and do not perceive major problems on the roadways.
  • Survey respondents who had previously visited the park in the three years before the survey were significantly more likely to cite problems with traffic congestion, too many people, availability of parking and restrooms, feeling safe on boardwalks, and people acting unsafe around wildlife, thermal features and roads.
  • Likewise, first-time visitors who had been in the park for five or more days perceived greater problems than first-timers who had been in the park four days or fewer when surveyed.
  • Visitors who had been in the park for five days or longer placed grater value on being close to nature, experiencing a wild place, experiencing solitude and seeing wildlife.
  • As part of the survey, 100 electronic tablets were distributed to visitors who were ask to answer questions when prompted as they toured the park. In every month from May through September 2018, between 74% and 78% of tablet survey respondents said they were not at all frustrated with the amount of time spent in traffic congestion behind other vehicles.

Previous park traffic research identified all roads on the west side between Norris and Madison, West Yellowstone and Old Faithful as having dense congestion.

The Yellowstone 2018 Summer Visitor Use research offers park managers and tourism professionals in the Greater Yellowstone Area valuable insight into what visitors are thinking as they visit the park's most popular spots. The 262-page report concludes: "the ability to recognize and communicate specific issues across the park allows for Yellowstone managers to make targeted changes to further improve the visitor experience and protect resources."

The National Park Service budget for the year that began Oct. 1 remains unfinished, as do budgets for most federal agencies. The Trump administration, once again, proposed reductions in funding for NPS. The latest Yellowstone visitor survey confirms the depth of public appreciation for this park; members of Congress, especially the delegations from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, must ensure that the budget support what their constituents value in our first national park.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.