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Yellowstone strategizing for the future as it dealt with a year of record-breaking visitors

 The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
Kamila Kudelska
Wyoming Public Radio
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

Yellowstone National Park has already surpassed its previous record of visitors with about 4.8 million so far this year. The park dealt with this increase of visitors while still feeling the impact of the pandemic, specifically a smaller employee pool. But Superintendent Cam Sholly said while it was a stressful season, it was successful. Sholly told Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska the impacts that visitation has on the park presently and in the future.

Cam Sholly: I mean, think about wherever you live. You add a million more people into the town in a single year and generally within a six-month window, it's a big impact. And people don't necessarily think about these things. But if you have to empty 2,000 trash cans five times a day instead of three, that's more staffing, that's more trucks, that's more trash runs. If you have to clean 600 bathrooms five times a day instead of three. That equates to staffing needs. If you have a million more people flushing the toilet five times a day per person. What does that do to your wastewater treatment facilities? So those are all kinds of invisible things people don't really think about, but those are definitely real impacts. What are the public safety numbers for emergency medical service calls or search rescues or law enforcement volume? And, we run a full-scale operation here. Those are all things that we're looking at, from the standpoint of what our staffing levels are, what the workload looks like, how do those staffing and workload ratios match up? And what kind of shifts may need to occur in the future in order to manage the increase in visitation more effectively?

Kamila Kudelska: What are y'all thinking about to address these challenges in the future?

CS: We have a strategy now for managing visitor use and increasing visitation. That strategy kind of revolves around four key components. One is, what are the true impacts of increasing visitation on the resources of this park? You hear this regularly in the media as a narrative that the visitors are overrunning Yellowstone or overrunning national parks in general. The fact of that matter is, that's not true. And the reason that's not true is if you look at the amount of pavement in this park, or what we would consider developed, we mapped every square foot of roads, parking lots and pullouts. Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres. The total number of acres that vehicles travel on is 1,750 acres out of 2.2 million. So it's a very minuscule sliver of the park that sees the vast majority of the visitation; most people don't get more than a half-mile away from their car. And we spend probably 98 percent of our time, effort, and budget in that small sliver of the park. There's a range of actions that we're talking to staff in areas where we have resources that are vulnerable. We're continuing a very aggressive monitoring effort to determine where some of those impacts are occurring. Second, what are the impacts of increasing visitation on staffing? The third component of the strategy is visitor experience. What do they want when they come and visit Yellowstone? And what we found through a lot of survey data is that what we think they expect isn't always what they expect. About 70 percent of visitors that come to Yellowstone are first-time visitors. It's a bucket list trip. We found that the vast majority of them, this is not me saying this isn't an issue, it is in many areas. But we found that visitors aren't as frustrated sitting in congestion and traffic looking at wildlife for instance then we might think they are.

Now, who's frustrated are the locals, the employees, and the people who have come back to the park time and time again, because they know where they want to go. They've seen a bunch of bison, they've seen grizzlies. And so they're sitting in a traffic jam 30 cars back and they're irritated, understandably. So reconciling those two perspectives, from the visitor experience standpoint is something that is challenging, but something that we're looking to address. And the fourth and final areas are really what are the impacts of increasing visitation on the gateway communities and our partners, economically, recreational, access wise? What does Cody think? What does Gardener think? Or Cook City or Jackson? And so those are four kinds of key areas that we're focused on. And within each one of those areas, there's a range of actions that can be taken from nothing to extreme. And what we want to try to do is really identify where the problems are occurring, and what action is necessary to address that problem.

KK: Any solutions or actions that are going to be taken for sure for the next busy season, next summer? Or is it still kind of in the flux as y'all are working on it?

CS: You know, for instance, three hours in the morning, three or four hours in the morning, from West Yellowstone to inbound traffic, it's literally almost bumper to bumper. And if you throw a few bison in there or some other wildlife, it becomes gridlock for miles and miles. We assigned very limited staff in that corridor on the inbound or even on the outbound side, which was like a commute corridor where everybody's going to work in the morning. Everybody's going home in the afternoon. And so there are things we're looking at to answer your question for next summer: to more aggressively put traffic management rangers in that corridor, to keep the flow coming in and keep the flow going out. Whether it be wildlife-related or someone breaks down or whatever the case is. We did a shuttle pilot at Canyon [Village], you may have seen the electric vehicle driverless shuttle this last summer, that was very successful. I think there's some real potential in certain areas for a shuttle like that, especially at Canyon or maybe even in the Old Faithful area. We're also doing a shuttle feasibility study to look at what the feasibility of putting a shuttle system in from the base out of Old Faithful, and where there's a lot of parking capacity and move visitors into the Geyser corridor, Midway, Prismatic, etc. And then we've got some other small things like the North Rim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

There's like 150 parking spaces. We don't manage that. So it gridlocks and backs up on the main road for a mile. Next summer, we'll probably station someone at that intersection. And if the parking capacity is full, people are going to need to go to the visitor center and hang out and come back later. So those are some kind of short, some things we've done that are simple. There's some things that are more complex, we've got a large plan and put together for Grand Prismatic to fix the parking issue there. And then, to the big question, on a lot of people's minds when they look at parks are implementing visitation caps and reservation systems. We're talking about that. It'd be crazy for us not to have conversations about what that could look like. There is no immediate plan to implement a cap or reservation system, park-wide. Most of our campgrounds are now in reservation systems, a lot of them used to be first come first serve. So there's some things that we've done micro geographically. I am concerned with the recent approval of vaccinated internationals coming in. Whereas the last two summers, we haven't had international visitation. So we've had record levels of visitation with primarily domestic visitation. I think you're gonna see a huge spike next summer of internationals coming in. What I don't know is will you have a counterbalance of Americans traveling internationally or not? Or do you have a similar level of domestic travel, and the additive impacts of an international visitation coming in which I think could push us over five million next year?

KK: Wow. Yeah, I didn't even think about that. And kind of not really shifting. But a little bit. I mean, earlier this month, the Interior Secretary and the transportation secretary signed a joint pledge to test the newest innovative travel technologies. And they pointed to Yellowstone as being potentially one which will have this new technology first, or one of the first ones. So I was just wondering, what does this entail for Yellowstone? Do you have any ideas? And what does it mean, maybe to help with the transportation with the traffic and stuff like that, in the future?

CS: Well, I think I already mentioned the pilot system that we did with the electric vehicle shuttles this past summer. That's an emerging technology that I think not only in Yellowstone, but in many parks is kind of the wave of the future. Electric vehicle charging stations, we have a very minuscule number of those. We're seeing more and more demand for those from people that are driving either hybrids or pure EVs. And we've got to be responsive to that. I think there's an information component to how do we, in a park this size, which is bigger than Delaware, and Rhode Island put together, communicate in real-time to visitors that are coming in about road conditions or about traffic hazards, or the status of campgrounds or accommodations or wayfinding, or those kinds of things. And so, all of those are looking at or looking through a lens of evolving technologies and looking for opportunities where we might implement those and help us with those pillars I mentioned earlier from the standpoint of lessening resource impacts, lessening impacts on traffic congestion and staffing and operations, improving visitor experience, all of those kinds of things. There's not probably a single one, but I think being open to trying out some of these technologies I think is really important for us moving forward.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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