By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer
BIG SKY – Newly appointed Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cameron Sholly spoke at the Big Sky Real Estate Discovery Center in Town Center on Nov. 15, sharing his perspective on visitation caps, budget issues, and wildlife management in the park.
Structured as a dialogue between Sholly and area locals and business owners, the event organized by Visit Big Sky revealed how Sholly’s connections to Big Sky, and the region, run deep.
“This place is near and dear to my heart,” Sholly told the audience.
He first skied Big Sky Resort in 1985 as a junior at Gardiner High School. He worked in the resort’s conference center after four years in the military, then spent his first season working in Yellowstone in 1990. He attended Montana State University, joining the U.S. Army Reserve unit in Bozeman, which was activated during Desert Shield. After a deployment in Desert Storm, Sholly worked another season in the park and then as a bellman at Big Sky Resort’s Shoshone Lodge in 1991.
Sholly’s father lives in Big Sky six months out of the year, so Sholly and his son visit every year. Sholly’s sister, Alex Tyson, is the executive director of Visit Billings.
A recurring question Sholly has heard is whether the park is considering visitation caps or other mechanisms to rein in visitor numbers.
“At this point, the answer to that is no,” Sholly said, asking rhetorically: “Does that mean that at some point that couldn’t happen?”
He said that if visitation rose significantly, conversations about ways to reduce numbers would likely ensue, but that they would include Yellowstone’s gateway communities.
A theme he brought up throughout the conversation was his commitment to building and maintaining relationships with the communities that ring the park, acknowledging that the park’s decisions will heavily affect these communities. He shared his mantra, “Listen, learn and act,” explaining that he wants these neighboring communities to feel heard, even if the park’s decisions aren’t ideal for each individual town.
“There’s a danger if you listen and learn too much and you don’t actually take an action,” Sholly said.
An audience member asked whether it would be viewed as negative if visitation decreased, and marketing efforts were scaled back, such as the Find Your Park campaign, a collaboration between the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service designed to personally connect individuals to parks.
“Find Your Park was outstanding, on multiple levels,” Sholly said. “It was designed really to connect with the next generation of stewards, visitors, applicants. It was very successful.”
He added that it’s a difficult topic of conversation, considering approximately $4 million was spent with one of the most prominent marketing firms in the world, which grew system-wide parks visitation by 50 million in five years—yet a chief challenge Yellowstone faces is too many visitors.
So far in 2018, the park hosted 4,078,770 visits, according to a Nov. 14 press release, which is down 0.15 percent from the same period last year and down 3 percent from the park’s record visitation year in 2016.
“I don’t think less visitation is bad,” Sholly concluded, adding that determining visitation thresholds and impact on resources is a large focus of his office.
While visitation burgeons, the opposite seems true of federal funding, another audience member pointed out.
Sholly described that, of the $11.6 billion deferred maintenance backlog in the national parks system, approximately $500 million is in Yellowstone, and half of that sum is differed maintenance on roads, bridges and structures within the park. He pointed to the passage of the Restore Act as an opportunity for a substantial influx of funding to address the deficit, but does not think more money solves all of the park’s problems.
“I think there’s a lot we can do better with what we have, before we get to the conversation about how much more we need,” Sholly said. “Any organization, public or private, has similar challenges and the answer is not always more.”
He also said he believes there are several actions park management can take to address priorities within their current funding limits. He indicated that some high-priority items are not being funded, while ones lower on the list are. Once priorities are straightened out, and the system is closer to optimal, then requesting more funds would be appropriate, Sholly said.
EBS also asked Sholly questions about grizzly bear relisting and quarantine for brucellosis-infected bison. Although he declined to comment on how relisting grizzly bears on the Endangered Species list would affect the species and future management, he said he’s very committed to getting bison on the larger landscape, working with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and tribal partners.
“We’ve got bison that are currently quarantined and undergoing testing for brucellosis and our plan is, in the next 12 months or so, to move those bison—as long as they test brucellosis-free—to the Fort Peck tribes,” Sholly said.
He concluded his time with the Big Sky audience by saying it is a privilege to be working in such a place. He said he’s not as much concerned with his legacy as with doing the right thing in the park.
“There will never be anything I do that compromises the resources at that park,” Sholly said.