Staff Views: Wearing Out Wyoming: Yellowstone tourism, economy and environment
June 24, 2021
As the least-populated state, we are always hyperaware when suddenly the highways are busy and the hotels are full.
Tourist season is generally met with a wrinkled nose or furrowed brow when mentioned here in Wyoming, despite the fact that a large chunk of our economy, $3.05 billion in in-state spending last year according to the Wyoming Office of Tourism, is contributed by out-of-staters. We see tourists as litterers, campsite hoarders, wildlife provokers and generally rude guests.
I spent last summer as a Yellowstone tour guide and I can attest that, unfortunately, that stereotype has some truth to it. I spent a large portion of my time warning tourists not to pet the buffalo, to GET AWAY FROM THAT BEAR, to stay off of the silica crust over the hot springs. And I would like to note that, thanks to my diligent babysitting, I did not contribute a single injury or death to the yearly toll.
After spending 12-hour stretches with families from Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas and Maryland, I found that they weren’t intentionally being disrespectful of our state and the park. They just didn’t know.
They had not spent their entire lives witnessing wildlife the way that Wyomingites get to, they only got to see such large wild animals in zoos or, since these were often incredibly wealthy people, on guided hunting trips. Their relationship with Yellowstone was based off of what they saw on TV and social media, or their past experiences in less wild places.
These people were so excited to be a part of the Instagram-induced daydream surrounding national parks that they were willing to climb up the hot, crowded, gravelly overlook of the Grand Prismatic to take a selfie, brave the COVID-y gift shop by Old Faithful, and, possibly the scariest of all, let me drive them up steep and sometimes guard rail-free switchbacks in an 11-passenger van. And despite my best efforts, some of them were still disappointed by not seeing a bear, waiting up to an hour for Old Faithful to erupt, or “walking more than expected.”
It really isn’t their fault. It’s all marketing.
Tourism has been a lifesaver for the National Park System; it has enabled them to fund their staff and infrastructure repairs, bring in revenue for small towns near their entrances, and ultimately allowed for large areas of our country to be preserved and protected. The parks are presented as a spectacular showing of all nature has to offer, the perfect family vacation. And who could blame tourists for wanting that experience for themselves, for their children?
It is not enough for people to go places and experience them with their family anymore; they need to share their family photos on social media. For us, that might be holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For Yellowstone tourists, they want a photo with the buffalo, with Old Faithful, and they’re going to get it.
My friend Ashlyn Ewen of Greybull is a physics and environmental science systems major at Doane University, soon to be transferred to the University of Wyoming. She has done her fair share of research on this topic, and I fully intend to mooch off of it.
In her paper on the effects of tourism in Yellowstone, Ashlyn writes:
“The way the park’s experience is framed—emphasizing being ‘one with nature’ and exploration—affects how tourists will treat the land. The park is a form of consumption, the tourists being consumers. In the anthropocentric sense, the relationship between tourists and the park is not allied with respect or distance: it is portrayed as hands-on entertainment. We can see this metamorphosis of the natural world into a spending spree, with approximately 25% of total expenditure during a tourist’s trip being spent shopping for souvenirs. Such an emphasis is put on the tourist’s experience and what they may bring home with them, instead of enjoying the health and natural state of the park.”
She’s right. The way we use national parks is not sustainable. “For example, Horseshoe Bend in Arizona attracted 100,000 visitors on average prior to 2010 — the year Instagram was created, according to the Guardian, November 20, 2018. Afterwards, the overlook generated 750,000 visitors per year,” Ashlyn wrote.
Nature isn’t designed to suddenly accommodate hundreds of thousands more individuals during a short period of time. People are entering the park at early and late hours or during off-seasons in order to avoid the crowds, interrupting animals’ migratory patterns. They are also more apt to climb up to dangerous places or trek off-trail to find the perfect selfie spot.
If we continue to “sell” the national parks as backdrops and souvenirs rather than a way to learn about and positively interact with nature, the “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures” philosophy doesn’t really hold true.
At the same time, our state relies too much on the tourism industry to disregard it, especially with coal and oil suffering. We need the millions of tourists flooding into Yellowstone every year, but we don’t need their extra impact. So the question is, how do we keep our tourists from becoming unwelcome burdens on the ecosystem, and in a more selfish sense, us?
“Sustainable tourism” is a phrase that will no doubt raise a few eyebrows in such a conservative community, but sustainable doesn’t always immediately mean liberal. It means we have a chance to keep people coming to our natural spaces and bringing money to our communities without destroying them.
Ashlyn, our student scientist, writes that:
“Sustainable tourism can be defined as the adjustment of tourism to focus on the economic and environmental impacts in order to create positive repercussions for local communities and nature. It is important to note that this focuses not just on environmentalism, but economic standpoints as well, making it feasible for both parties to use sustainable tourism. Because Yellowstone National Park operates as a market, the solution to better wellbeing and income to the park relies on seeing it as a business. Yellowstone must collect more data on how they are attempting to improve their environmental footprint, because the consumer will use the proof of change as a signal to trust the changes happening in the park. There are numerous efforts Yellowstone is implementing, such as their GreeningYellowstone project. But with public push to implement this strategy, changes would occur quicker than the rate at which they are going currently.”
If you visit the National Park Service’s Yellowstone web page, there is a tab on sustainability. It tells you about Yellowstone’s efforts to be greener and shows a couple environmental impact reports. But as a 2020 tour guide, I can attest that in the official Yellowstone guide book used to train all of the companies that present the park, there is almost nothing in there about sustainability. I never once told my tourists, “Did you know Yellowstone is trying to get people to recycle their bear spray cans?” or “Hey, did you hear that Yellowstone is the largest consumer of energy in the National Park Service?” I didn’t know, it wasn’t a focus in my training and I never thought about it because they never asked.
Eco-friendliness is not implemented in the way the park markets itself. It is not in the Travel Wyoming ads. It is not on the informational signs within the park, short of “Don’t Litter.”
By changing the way we market our national parks, with emphasis on keeping them wild and helping the environment rather than places to be freely explored without regard of impact, there is a chance we could give our out-of-state visitors a realm of reason, and foster an expectation of respect for the parks. That could mean less litter on the sides of the road, less of our resources going toward saving individuals from animal attacks or dangerous ventures, and less toward prosecuting them for doing it all in the first place.
I think it’s a conversation to be had, especially with the state of our economy. As we move forward, we need to keep our values in mind and remember that Wyoming is beautiful because it is wild, and we would like to keep it that way.
Avery Howe is a summer intern at the Northern Wyoming News. She is a 2019 graduate of Greybull High School and is in her third year of a photojournalism degree at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.