CODY — Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly has every square foot of pavement mapped out in the 2.2 million acre Park. He’s scrutinizing the 1,750 acres of pavement in the hope of finding answers to the rising traffic congestion.
To that sliver of the Park, Sholly said Yellowstone is dedicating 95 percent of its annual budget.
“We have a very, very large problem in a very small percentage of this Park,” he said.
It’s a balance between providing the public an experience of a lifetime while protecting the Park’s delicate ecosystem.
So far this year, 4.47 million people have passed through the Park. The summer 2021 season in Yellowstone was notable not only for the record number of visitors, but also for showing the effects of increasing crowds and what they mean for the future of the Park.
“The staff is under a substantial amount of stress that comes with managing that level of visitation,” Sholly said.
The Park was not spared from the challenges of COVID-19, as there were 82 positive cases among the roughly 3,500 employees, a rate of 2.3 percent. This was about 20 more cases than the Park had in 2020.
Although it hired more people than in 2020, Yellowstone was still understaffed all summer, partly due to remaining COVID-19 employee housing caps and also to its inability to find enough employees to fill the spots that were allowed.
“The workforce shortage that a lot of businesses experienced throughout the country – that hit Yellowstone, especially with some of the food and beverage operations and trying to keep employees and keep service levels where they’d normally be,” Sholly said, an issue he considered “especially challenging.”
It’s unclear how much resolution there will be to the supply of workers next year since COVID-19 precautions could still be a factor.
When there is a substantial increase in visitors over one year, there is a trickle down effect that occurs into every aspect of the Park. Trash cans fill up more quickly, bathrooms need more frequent cleaning, and parking lots fill up at unprecedented rates.
“What does 750,000 people more in a single year flushing the toilets five times a day do to your wastewater treatment facilities?” Sholly questioned.
He said Park staff will study these factors in the coming months and years.
To Sholly, it’s “hard to say” if this summer’s pressure will discourage employees from returning, but he added that Yellowstone is not the only national park dealing with these issues.
Many national parks throughout the country saw historic levels of visitation this year likely due to a trend of “revenge travel” brought on by the previous summer lockdowns that stopped many from getting out.
“It’s a beautiful place, it’s an awesome place to work,” Sholly said. “But it’s also a very challenging place to live and work at the same time. That’s the cost or work in progress of being in the Park Service or concessions operations.”
But Yellowstone does face some uncommon challenges exacerbated by the pressure on the limited road system. Sholly considers Midway Geyser Basin the most congested area of the Park and where he saw the most extreme impacts from visitors.
In addition to lines of traffic on the roads this summer, he also said parking lots filled up at a record pace. He said there will likely be measures implemented next summer to prevent people from entering filled lots and causing gridlock.
This past summer, the Park tested out automated, electric shuttles within the campground, visitor services, and adjoining visitor lodging area at Canyon Village. Sholly said he considered this a successful project, and expects to use these shuttles in some form at some point in the future. The Park is performing a shuttle feasibility study in the Old Faithful north to Midway corridor to gauge the viability of installing a shuttle transportation service there.
Although the Park has seen its fastest growth to visitation in the last decade, this growth has not been completely linear. It took five years after the previous record was set in 2016 to reach a new height this summer.
Sholly said he is unsure of what to expect for 2022 as domestic travelers may be fewer in number, but the international demographic may be much larger as most travel restrictions will likely be lifted by that time.
“Unquestionably, the (visitation) trend will continue to be upward,” he said. “The overall trend will be up, but that doesn’t mean it will be record every single year. We’re all going to need to be ready for what I see will be continuing visitation downstream.”