Visitor Use Management

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Traffic slows to a crawl as people pass some bison in Hayden Valley
Annual visitation has increased by over 40% since 2008, leading to traffic jams like this one in Hayden Valley.

NPS/Neal Herbert

 

Yellowstone provides a place where people can glimpse primitive America. A place where humans share an open landscape with thousands of wild animals, including bison, bears, elk, and wolves. A place where a volcano’s hidden power rises up in colorful hot springs, mudpots, and geysers. A place where people can see all of these things with relative ease thanks to a road system that connects five entrances with many popular destinations.

And more and more people want to experience it.

Since 2008, annual visitation to Yellowstone has increased by more than 40%, causing overflowing parking lots, a rise in traffic jams, roadside soil erosion and vegetation trampling, and unsanitary conditions around busy bathrooms. Half of this increase in visitation occurred in just two years (2014 to 2016), coupled by an even greater rise in motor vehicle accidents (+90%), ambulance use (+60%), and search and rescue efforts (+130%). Meanwhile, staffing levels and funding have remained flat over the last ten years (see graph below).

The National Park Service mission requires us to provide people the opportunity to enjoy Yellowstone without allowing that enjoyment to damage or diminish the very things they came to see. Many visitors want a park with fewer people and less traffic, but they don’t necessarily want limits on visitation or the use of private cars in the park.

The challenges posed by high levels of summer visitation and changing visitor use patterns are comprehensive, complex, and affect not only Yellowstone visitors and employees, but gateway communities, surrounding public lands, and other national and regional stakeholders. Difficult decisions lie ahead, and we’ll need your help to find compromises that balance the protection of resources with a shared desire to experience the world’s first national park. As we move forward in our efforts, we’ll be reaching out to the public, our partners, and nearby communities to get involved. We want to listen to all ideas about managing Yellowstone’s visitation.

Preparing for the Future

Yellowstone has not begun a formal planning process for visitor use management. The park has been working to understand the impacts of increasing visitation on: 1) park resources, 2) staffing, operations, and infrastructure, 3) the visitor experience, and 4) gateway communities and partners. We’re focusing our efforts in the near term on how we can improve our own operations to protect resources and provide a better visitor experience in key congested areas. If visitation continues to rise, future management strategies could include (but aren’t limited to): operational and staffing changes; communication and traffic management systems; shuttle systems or other transportation alternatives; and reservations or timed-entry systems at specific sites where demand exceeds capacity.

Below are details about past and current work that will help the park gather the data it needs to address visitation challenges and inform future management strategies.

Upcoming Work

Pilot Projects

The park continues to test a range of pilot projects around the park, such as altering traffic, parking, and visitor flow configurations and adding staff to highly congested areas to improve resource protection, safety, operations, and the visitor experience.

2020 Visitor Use Study

In the summer of 2020, researchers will survey people’s opinions about potential scenarios that could be used to manage visitation in the future. Participants will consider “trade-offs” and will be asked which scenarios they prefer if a hypothetical local shuttle service were to be available.

Past Work

Visitor Use Studies

  • Visitor Use Study (2016): The park commissioned a survey of summer visitors to better understand who’s coming to Yellowstone, how they plan their trips, what they come to see, their perceptions of the park (including attitudes about access and transportation), and their level of satisfaction with park services and facilities.
  • Visitor Use Study (2018): Researchers conducted a study to explore how people experience and move through the park in real-time and how their experiences vary across the season (May-September).
  • Visitor Use and Behavior at Attraction Sites: In 2017, the park began an on-going monitoring project in partnership with Oregon State University and the Youth Conservation Corp (YCC) to better understand visitor volumes and behaviors at high-use attraction sites. YCC Crews monitor numbers and density of people, how they use the area, and instances of resource impacts. This monitoring occurs at Old Faithful, Midway Geyser Basin, the Fairy Falls trail to the Grand Prismatic Overlook, and Norris. 2017 Report and 2017 Appendices. (2018 Report coming soon.)

Transportation Studies

Wildlife Jams (2018)

Employees worked with University of Montana students to examine how humans and animals interact with one another at wildlife jams along park roads.

Visitor and Employee Safety (2018)

Two graduate students from the NPS Business Plan Internship program worked with the park to study the relationship between increasing visitation, human safety, and impacts on employees and operations in the Resource and Visitor Protection Division.

Resource Impacts

Employees monitored the creation and expansion of social trails, which are unwanted and unofficial trails made by visitors that damage soil and plants.

 
Graph showing increasing visitation and flat staffing.

Last updated: November 7, 2019

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

PO Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168

Phone:

307-344-7381

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