By Katie Morrison
Explore Big Sky Staff Writer

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – The National Park Service released a report on Oct. 8, showing that Yellowstone National Park visitation numbers for 2014 have already surpassed the year-end total for 2013. More than 3.2 million people have visited the park since January, placing 2014 in top five visitation years since the park’s inception in 1872.

“As you look at long-term visitation numbers, there continues to be a slow, steady increase,” said YNP Chief of Public Affairs Al Nash.

Yellowstone’s complex ecosystem is a major draw: Bison, wolves, grizzlies, elk, eagles, trout, wolverines and caddis flies interact in an environment of geysers, mud pots, wildflowers, sagebrush, rivers and mountain lakes.

Of comparable diversity are Yellowstone’s visitors, traveling from around the U.S., as well as from countries around the globe every year. The human interaction between these visitors brings its own complexity, as they interface with one other and the natural world.

Yellowstone tourism has also a substantial economic impact on the surrounding communities. According to the NPS’ “2013 National Park Visitor Spending Effects Report,” the park brought $451 million to the region in 2013.

“Although it’s not why Yellowstone National Park was created, we recognize we are an important economic contributor to the region,” Nash said.

As is the case with any ecosystem, each organism in Yellowstone both gives to and receives from its environment. YNP not only brings revenue to the region, but also receives support from various sources, including area nonprofits like Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Yellowstone Association.

Nash says the park receives an estimated $33.8 million in federal funding for its base-operating budget, a number that has declined or remained static for several years. An additional $42 million come from other sources, which Nash says “[contribute] to operating Yellowstone.”

Rob Gilmore, Executive Director of the Northern Rocky Mountain Economic Development District, sees an expanded scope of the visitation impact.

The social and economic implications of the growing visitation to Yellowstone and surrounding communities drive their own set of challenges, Gilmore says. While the rise in visitation is a financial boon to gateway towns, it also creates pressure on basic infrastructure needs such as healthcare facilities and employee housing.

“There are synergies between the [gateway] communities, so it makes sense that regional problems can have regional solutions,” Gilmore said.

These synergies have sparked collaborative efforts, crossing state lines with initiatives including YPF’s Gateway Businesses For The Park program, which brings area businesses together in support of the park. The program represents companies from many different aspects of the regional economy, from the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport to small businesses like Big Sky’s East Slope Outdoors.

“We support Yellowstone because we believe its sustainability is vital to not only preserve the natural resource, but also the economic viability of the region,” said Jeff Burgard, president of AlphaGraphics printing, a For the Park member in Bozeman.