By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST
Just five months shy of his 50th birthday, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly, the top decision-maker in this country’s most venerable nature preserve, is being tasked to confront a mind-boggling array of controversies, large and small, immediate and long term.
On the day we met, he was preparing for his first summer deluge of visitors that traditionally commences after Memorial Day.
Some 434,000 visits were notched in Yellowstone in May, slightly down from the same month a year ago, which was the busiest May ever. In spite of the government shutdown last winter, the number of park visitors overall is up one percent and is 11 percent higher than in 2015.
Sholly noted that some things about Yellowstone in summer are not markedly different. “Since my first days here back in the mid-80s, I remember traffic gridlock caused by bison, bears and other animals along the roadside,” he said.
“People love this place and that’s not going to change,” he added. “If people weren’t so enthusiastic about coming here, I’d be worried. Fundamentally, the question we need to ask ourselves is how do we continue to give visitors an experience they’ll never forget, while preserving the most important aspects what keeps Yellowstone a one-of-a-kind place in the world: it’s diverse and interconnected resources.”
Talk to local people who live in the region, including those who steadfastly avoid going to Yellowstone in summer, and many say its front-country is congested beyond capacity.
“I don’t take quite the alarmist’s viewpoint that some people do—at least not yet,” Sholly said. “Let’s put some things in perspective. Traffic moving through a road corridor, which covers one percent of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres, is not nose diving the condition of the resources, even when it’s bumper to bumper in certain places. That said, there are more visitors here than ever. We need to take it seriously and have an organized approach to how we manage visitors today, and what that might look like tomorrow.”
A lot of ideas have been floated, not by Sholly but by citizens: a quota or lottery system that limits the number of people allowed to enter the park on a given day; a public transportation system comprised of shuttles; even monorails. Maybe someday such things might gain traction, Sholly said, but not anytime soon.
At current rising rates, Yellowstone could see the number of total annual tourist visits rise from 4.2 million to 6 million in a decade. “I can say unequivocally that we have not strategically-managed increased visitor use in this park,” Sholly said.
In one of the most extensive visitor-use surveys conducted in Park Service history, conducted in 2018, 75 percent of visitors to Yellowstone were found to be in the park for the first time. Surprising perhaps to critics is that among those visitors surveyed, well over 90 percent said they had an excellent to very good experience during their stay.
This raises another question: Who is able to be a better gauge of what the Yellowstone experience should be—those who have been making regular pilgrimages to the park for decades and are dismayed, or those encountering it new with possibly lower expectations?
Sholly says it’s important for people who live close by in the tri-state region of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to understand perspectives of the latter.
“To those who are here seeing a bison or bear for the first time, it’s a life-changing event. When they do, they’re going to stop and get out of their cars, take pictures—it’s a bucket-list moment to them and they’re enjoying it. To the angler sitting behind the steering wheel 30 cars back, who has seen thousands of bison, he’s frustrated,” Sholly said. “Reconciling these various forms of enjoyment while protecting the resources successfully is really what visitor-use management is all about.”
Given the wide range of Yellowstone stakeholders and varying interests, he’s under no delusion that it will be easy. And he notes no one is surveying the wildlife, asking it what level of human visitation it would prefer.
No other national park in the Lower 48 has the diversity of large mammals Yellowstone does and there’s a reason for that. Most of the park is unfragmented, devoid of huge throngs of people, including recreationists that are rapidly inundating wildlands outside the park, and habitat remains in good shape, at least for now.
Sholly isn’t the equivalent of a crusading Captain Planet. He is really akin, in some ways, to a big city mayor dealing with huge infrastructure challenges that often overshadow other priorities.
Two statistics loom immediately large: Yellowstone’s multi-billion-dollar asset portfolio—its human-built infrastructure—is plagued with a reported $580 million in deferred maintenance. Some estimate that number to be considerably higher than reported, perhaps twice as large. Another stat is rising visitation.
Not long ago, Sholly told Montana Gov. Steve Bullock something that park advocates have been seeking for years: “We don’t have a visitor-use-management strategy in this park. We have talked a lot about increased visitation. We’ve done some excellent surveys and social science exercises to get more data. But generally speaking, no one could tell you right now what our strategy is, or what we’re doing to manage visitation more effectively, and that needs to change.”
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399, which is available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.