Visitor Use Management
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. Yet all demographic trends point to the continued growth of annual visitation.
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. Future management strategies could include (but aren’t limited to) communication and traffic management systems, shuttle systems or other transportation alternatives, and reservations or timed-entry systems in areas where demand exceeds capacity.
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 planning 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.
What is the park doing now to prepare for the future?
Yellowstone has not yet begun a formal planning process for visitor use management. The park is in a critical data gathering phase to better understand our visitors, how they move through the park, and the impacts of increasing visitation on resources.
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.
2019 Pilot Projects
Employees will continue to test ideas intended to improve visitor flow and safety at various locations in the park, such as visitor drop-offs, traffic management, and a pedestrian trail to improve parking and safety at Norris Geyser Basin. Pilot projects that were successful in 2018, such as a three-way stop at Mammoth Junction or one-way pedestrian flow at Midway Geyser Basin, will likely be continued.
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 in given situations (examples could include shuttles systems, parking reservations, and various kinds of managed access).
Visitor Use Studies
Pilot Projects (2018)
Employees began testing ideas intended to improve the movement of cars and people at various locations in the park. Projects included implementing one-way pedestrian flow around the Grand Prismatic boardwalk, changing the hours of the Boiling River and limiting parking in that area, creating a drop off/pick up point for visitors in the Norris Geyser Basin, and making Mammoth Junction a three-way stop to prevent congestion when people wait to make left turns.
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.
Employees monitored the creation and expansion of social trails, which are unwanted and unofficial trails made by visitors that damage soil and plants.
Last updated: March 1, 2019