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 close to 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%) over the same time period. Meanwhile, staffing levels and funding have remained flat over the last ten years (see graph).
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.
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.
Transit Feasibility Study
Yellowstone is partnering with the Regional Alternative Transportation Program, the NPS Denver Service Center, and the DOT Volpe Center to analyze the opportunities, risks, and costs of local shuttles possibly originating at Old Faithful and Canyon Village.
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 (2017, 2018): 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 Norris Geyser Basin, Lower Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and the Fairy Falls trail to the Grand Prismatic Overlook. Past locations have also included Canyon (Artist Point), Old Faithful, and Artists' Paintpots. 2017 Report & 2017 Appendices; 2018 Report & 2018 Appendices.
In 2018 and 2019, a graduate student conducted a study to explore the feasibility of a shuttle system between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful. A final report is anticipated in late 2020.
Automated Shuttle Pilot (2021): The National Park Service launched a pilot in Yellowstone during summer 2021 to test low-speed, automated vehicle (AV) shuttle technology within the Canyon Village campground, visitor services, and adjoining visitor lodging area. Coordinated with NPS Planning, Facilities and Lands Directorate and DOT, the purpose of this pilot was to test emerging automated vehicle technology in the national park context.
Transit Feasibility Study (2022): Project partners looked at potential system locations, routes, stops, fleet requirements, business models, ridership, and costs of local shuttles possibly originating at Old Faithful and Canyon Village. This study includes qualitative impacts to visitor experience, safety, park operations, resources, and stakeholders. The park will use the outcome of the study to inform whether piloting a local transit service in Yellowstone is feasible.
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.