Between next weekend and the end of September, about 4 million visitors will pass through Yellowstone National Park. Most of them will stick close to the 400 miles of paved roads that loop through the 2.2 million acre wonderland of geysers and grizzlies.
Is the 137-year-old park ready for this crowd?
Not as ready as it should be.
Park visitation has grown much faster than park staff to ensure safe, enjoyable visitor experiences while protecting Yellowstone's incomparable landscapes and wildlife. Yellowstone's popularity soared even as the federal budget "sequestration" forced across the board cuts during the Obama administration and in past two years as the Trump administration slashed Interior Department spending on parks.
Funding for Yellowstone and the other units of the National Park Service has been lagging behind operational and maintenance needs for decades. As a result, there's now an estimated $12.9 billion in deferred maintenance throughout the system. Together, Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park have nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance needs, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly told a Cody, Wyo., group last week.
Seventy percent of the NPS maintenance backlog involves structures that are more than 60 years old, according to a report published last month by Pew Charitable Trusts. Yellowstone and Teton have many beautiful, historic structures dating to the turn of the 20th century. But they also have urgent needs for updating the sewer and water systems, roads, bridges, campgrounds and trails that serve millions of visitors who drive the regional economy.
An extensive visitor survey conducted in the summer of 2016 found that visitors hailed from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and 25 foreign countries. About 13% of those completing the survey were international travelers with about half coming from Europe and 34 percent from China.
Yellowstone Park needs more staff who can speak the languages of these visitors. The park needs more rangers to educate visitors about wildlife, forests, history and geology. It needs more staff to direct traffic.
All these needs are obvious to visitors. In the 2016 survey, lack of parking was the problem visitors cited most frequently, followed by too many people in the park, other visitors acting unsafe around wildlife, traffic congestion on park roads, traffic congestion at park entrances, not enough overnight accommodations and visitors acting unsafe around thermal features.
Working in the park requires sacrifices. Park and concessionaire employees often have substandard housing in moldy trailers. NPS is considering proposals from concessionaires to add housing units at Canyon and West Yellowstone as one step toward remedying the housing crunch.
"Improving the working and living conditions of the Yellowstone team" is the first strategic priority Sholly listed in an announcement last week.
This strategy includes a five-year plan to "substantially improved employee housing" and to "explore new housing partnership opportunities with gateway communities and partners."
Building coalitions and partnerships may be Yellowstone's most important future priority. Yellowstone already relies on nonprofit and corporate partners for significant support. For example, the Old Faithful Visitors Center was built several years ago with assistance from the Yellowstone Foundation, a forerunner of Yellowstone Forever, the private, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the park. The renovation of the Roosevelt Arch, rerouting of north entrance traffic and creation of a pedestrian friendly park was a project of federal, state, local and private collaboration.
NPS says Yellowstone's partnership strategy aims to:
- Make the NPS a better partner
- Ensure alignment with Yellowstone Forever philanthropic goals
- Build trust with gateway communities
- Honor tribal legacies and heritage
- Cultivate relationships with elected officials
- Strengthen conservation, environmental, economic, and recreation partnerships
- Build global partnerships
Those are big goals.
The federal government hasn't demonstrated the will to fund the park at levels that will sustain services, preserve natural resources and meet growing visitor demands. Those of us who love Yellowstone must step up. Those of us whose livelihoods depend on Yellowstone's attraction must invest in this place.
Montana and Wyoming citizens must keep advocating for Yellowstone with our congressional delegations. The protection of the Yellowstone Gateway in a new law this year shows that grass roots appeals can work. But we don't expect that citizens will get a major, ongoing boost in federal funding to do all that the park needs.
Yellowstone visitation pumped $629 million into neighboring communities in 2017, according to NPS. To keep money flowing from the park, local partners will need to put some money back in.