Challenges And Opportunities As National Parks Start To Reopen

May 22, 2020

Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks partially re-opened this week and visitors from around the country are already flocking to the celebrated destinations. The parks are not back to normal quite yet as many facilities remain closed including campgrounds, restaurants, and entrances into Yellowstone from Montana and Idaho. In a press conference, Governor Mark Gordon said the goal is not to have the destinations overwhelmed.

"We do, at the same time, want to reawaken the tourism economy in Park and Teton and the adjacent counties and so we're working very carefully with all of those entities," he said during a press conference.

Joan Anzelmo spent 35 years at the National Park Service including at Grand Teton and Yellowstone. The Wyoming resident discusses challenges and opportunities of re-opening the parks during a global pandemic; especially as Memorial Day weekend is upon us.

Joan Anzelmo
Credit Joan Anzelmo

Joan Anzelmo: I think it's great that the National Park Service is taking the steps to begin to slowly open in phases. Obviously, no one has been through anything quite like this before in terms of having closed and now trying to reopen in ways that are very safe.

Cooper McKim: Did this raise any questions to you? As far as you know, will there be challenges that they're going to have to deal with? This isn't, I imagine, going to be a return to exactly as things were.

JA: I think it's going to be very challenging and it will be situational meaning it will be specific to the individual park and to the communities that are adjacent to a national park and what the public health officials in the adjacent communities think is working and perhaps not working so well.

Right now, Yellowstone is opening in phases and it's just slowly opening the lower loop, the lower portion of Yellowstone. And visitors are, as I understand it, are being asked to only come for the day and to be pretty self sufficient so that, you know, bringing your food and anything that you're going to need: warm clothing, water, etc. because facilities are not really open by and large and it will be those gateway communities outside of any of the parks that will be supporting visitors who are trying to have an experience very different perhaps than in previous years.

CM: I've heard in some instances that staffing, as you said, may be still a little short, I think some concerns is that: how congestion will be handled, especially in communities that don't necessarily have a ton of space. And out-of-staters to coming in to Wyoming especially while it starts to get warmer. Are any of those concerns that you've heard about? Or see being handled?

JA: Yes, I've certainly heard those concerns and this is something new that the agency has never had to face before in any of its modern history. So, it's sort of by trial and error. Clearly, the public is anxious and looking forward to getting back into the parks to experience America's wonderful national parks.

So, there's a lot of reason to see visitors come flooding back in. But the crowding is a concern, access to public restrooms is certainly going to be an issue for some people and I think it's going to be a day by day, "how's it going? How is it working? Are there challenges? what's working well, what's maybe not working?" And most importantly, will people be respectful and protecting themselves and each other by wearing masks?

CM: Yeah, and it does, like you said, come down so much to just people making the right call, which is a really hard thing to expect. I mean, is there really any other way, in your opinion, other than doing the day-by-day approach of figuring out what works and what doesn't as far as keeping people safe as we reopen the parks?

JA: I think that one trial that that might be good to experiment with would be making day reservations right now.

I think that if the parks were to experiment with a reservation system, so that while they're opening in these slower phases, whether they would be able to reserve ahead and sort of control the spacing of people. It's a challenge in a place as large as Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but perhaps there could be ways to experiment with advance reservations to even come for a day visit.

Map of entrances into Yellowstone National Park
Credit National Park Service

CM: I think parks are an interesting example during the quarantine because people do imagine that it's very spaced apart naturally.

You know, the roads typically lead to a popular area…so the way that visitors travel in parks on narrow roads is their funnel to those key points of interest. Just because one is outdoors doesn't mean the risks of relaying the virus or being coming infected are not there they are.

CM: As a Jackson resident, are you skeptical at all I've seen the area flooded with people as it starts to get warmer.

JA: Certainly the roads and the town have begun to get very busy, but I understand why people want to take advantage of national parks and national forests to get outside, to enjoy these magnificent public lands that we're lucky to have. And so kind of balance out the desire of everyone who wants to get out and enjoy them with the challenges that large numbers of people could pose to local officials in the gateway communities as well as to the park. So, I think it's a wait and see right now.

CM: Do you think it's the right time? Or is there a right time to reopen the parks?

I think that it is the right time based, again, on what, at least here in Wyoming, what the Governor has announced in terms of lessening some of the restrictions that he asked of Wyoming citizens to stay at home and to follow the CDC guidelines. The big change for our state and for the governor will be as hundreds of thousands of people begin to head to Wyoming to enjoy our state and enjoy the national parks, and what kind of way the public will conduct themselves and behave so that hopefully, all of these wonderful public lands and national parks, the National Forest, can remain open without having to re-close.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.