By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – Yellowstone National Park is a place of wonder where humans can mingle with the natural world, free of excess pavement and tall buildings. It’s a place of knowledge and a sacred glimpse into a somewhat still wild earth.
Preservation of this Yellowstone is a complex task, one made all the more onerous by the rapidly expanding pressures of increased tourism.
In the past decade, annual visitation has increased by over 40 percent, leading to overflowing parking lots, traffic jams, unsanitary conditions around bathrooms, soil erosion and vegetation trampling, according to Christina White, Yellowstone’s outdoor recreation planner.
To respond to these challenges, park managers are continuing to study visitor experience this summer, with the hopes of surveying visitor opinions on possible management changes next year.
“Our superintendent often likes to say that the least studied animal in Yellowstone Park is the human. And he’s right. We [need] to understand a lot more about our humans,” White said. “A big component of addressing the challenges that we’re facing here in Yellowstone is understanding how our visitors move through the ecosystem as a whole.”
To better understand visitor preferences, challenges and opinions, random individuals will be surveyed in-person this summer about their time at key attractions. Some visitors will also receive a digital tablet upon entering the park. These tablets will track the visitor’s route and ask specific questions about their experience as they travel through the road system.
There is also a continued effort to understand the extent of resource degradation. The Youth Conservation Corps will monitor tourist activity at focal attraction areas this summer, keeping track of non-compliant visitor behavior, such as littering or letting dogs off leash.
Another ongoing resource study includes social trail monitoring, which started back in 2014.
“A social trail is an undesignated trail that forms when people are walking to an area to, say, observe wildlife off the road, or to get to a fishing spot,” said Amanda Bramblett, a biological technician in Yellowstone who is leading the monitoring effort. “Having open, exposed ground leads to erosion and we can get invasive species into these areas.”
Bramblett and two additional technicians use a large Trimble GPS unit to map the extent of social trails, physically walking the paths and recording changes from year to year.
“It’s a valuable tool to us to better understand how our visitors travel through the backcountry and the front country,” said Yellowstone spokeswoman Morgan Warthin of Bramblett’s GIS mapping. Warthin added that the park hasn’t made any decisions based on the information.
In 2016, Yellowstone launched the first of its visitor use and transportation and vehicle mobility studies, which revealed that 84 percent of people are having a great time in the park. However, major challenges during a visitor experience included a lack of available parking, too many people and cars, and long lines. Additionally, 29 percent of roadways were shown to be over capacity during the peak season, and by 2023, White said they expect all of the roads in the park to exceed capacity.
“Whatever potential management strategies we end up using, whether it’s a shuttle system, reservation system, or limited length of stay, all of this comes with tradeoffs,” White said. “Now, we’re in the information gathering stage and there is more public engagement on the horizon.
“The next step is to start thinking about a more formal planning process. Any management strategies would involve significant public comment.”
To learn more about Yellowstone’s summer use planning, visit nps.gov/yell/getinvolved/summeruseplanning.htm.