Yellowstone superintendent says visitor numbers have plateaued
August 22, 2019
CODY — Yellowstone National Park superintendent Cam Sholly said he believes the nation’s oldest national park has “plateaued a little bit” in annual attendance at 4-million-plus.
And since the park’s system and operations can handle that tourist flow, Sholly said there is no reason to institute any drastic visitation rules such as requiring reservations to visit, or establishing a bus system from surrounding communities.
Sholly provided Yellowstone updates Tuesday afternoon to Park County commissioners in an hour-long session.
He reiterated his commitment to a five-step priority list he announced in Cody at the National Parks Day luncheon in May.
He also said construction near Fishing Bridge, that can bring up to 30-minute delays to motorists entering or exiting the Park through the East Entrance, is moving along well and should be completed by the end of 2020.
Park ranger Brad Ross, who used that road to join Sholly in Cody, said much congestion has been relieved at the junction just past Fishing Bridge.
“That’s all pretty much done,” Ross said.
Despite a chorus of complaints that periodically float around about Yellowstone being overcrowded, Sholly said a visitor survey from last year indicates “75 percent of first-time visitors” are “pretty happy” with their experience.
Others, who are repeat customers with a specific destination, “are frustrated” because they might be the 30th car in a bison jam and can’t progress at a faster pace.
Historically, it takes about 20 years for Yellowstone annual visitation growth to jump by a million people a year, Sholly said, with the leap from 3 million to 4 million being much swifter. However, since 2015, and including this year, attendance has been counted at 4 million or so.
“There are a lot of places in the Park even in July that are not that crowded,” he said.
Exceptions would be the areas at Geyser Basin and Madison Junction to West Yellowstone where Sholly said something must be done to alleviate traffic backups.
Due to overcrowding, some parks with multi-million annual attendance have adopted reservation plans to be allowed to enter, but Sholly said they are a fraction of the size of Yellowstone’s 2.2-million acres.
He said he sees neither a reservation system nor a bus system connecting gateway communities becoming policy “in the foreseeable future in any way, shape, or form.”
That is because Sholly does not think the number of visitors is harming Yellowstone’s resources.
“In no way, shape or form do I see 4 million visitors nosediving” the resources, he said.
Sholly has been on the job for 10 months and was making his fourth visit to Cody.
He said under his administration, surrounding communities will be consulted by any dramatic plans, but options such as advanced reservations to visit and an external bus system to cut down the volume of cars could easily be a decade or more away.
What has potential merit, Sholly said, is testing an internal bus system which could ferry tourists between Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or the like.
Sholly issued a list of priorities for his tenure during his speech in Cody a few months ago, with the No. 1 ranking going to improving employee housing.
He said he remains committed to eliminating 30-year-old trailers and thinks he has a sympathetic financial ear from the National Park Service administration and the Department of the Interior.
Sholly said he can reap additional financial savings from the current Park budget by streamlining spending and making it more efficient.
Commissioner Lloyd Thiel asked Sholly about an issue which has percolated for a few years: Requiring seasonal Park workers to obtain Wyoming licenses and registration.
The hiring of seasonal workers is difficult enough, Sholly said, and if someone from an out-of-state college and lives in another state realizes that is a job requirement, that will be a deal breaker.
“I don’t support that,” Sholly said of enforcing that regulation.
He compared the situation to Wyoming’s awarding of hunting licenses. Those who come to the state are not eligible for resident licenses right away and warned Wyoming might lose more money than it gained from the program.
“You’re right,” said commissioner Lee Livingston. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Sholly repeated prior comments about trying to expand the internet inside Yellowstone while avoiding the erection of unsightly cell towers.
Visitors want more internet access, though, and it can be useful for safety, he said.
“You’ve got to find a balance in there,” Sholly said.