Timed entry restrictions on travel into Yellowstone National Park will not be a policy to expect anytime soon, but it’s well within the realm of possibility in the future, said Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.
“I don’t think it needs to be implemented next year or the immediate future,” he said.
Timed entry was introduced in major corridors at Glacier and Rocky Mountain national parks this summer. Sholly said if such a measure were introduced at Yellowstone, it would be most likely limited to the busier West and South entrances where traffic lines sometimes stretch as long as a mile, rather than the East and Northeast entrances closest to Cody.
“What West Yellowstone (Mont.) needs to happen is probably much different than Cody,” he said.
Sholly also said the decision to move to timed entry would be made far in advance, with plenty of opportunity for public input from the gateway communities and likely coordination with Grand Teton National Park.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to talk about bigger things coming up downstream,” he said.
Although the Park is made up of 2.2 million acres, an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, vast swaths of the Park remain mostly untrammeled, with only 1,067 acres of roads.
Traffic mitigation is a very present issue in Yellowstone. This year, the Park is on pace to see a record 4.5-5 million visitors and broke its June visitation record with nearly 1 million attendees in that month alone.
“It’s going to be a substantially higher, visitation record year,” he said.
And visitation is increasing at exponential rates, setting new benchmarks with record speed. In 1948 the Park had its first 1 million visitor year, in 1965 it reached 2 million, 1992 it got to 3 million, and in 2015 more than 4 million visited Yellowstone for the first time.
There were 1.08 million visitors in July, an all time record for any month at the Park.
“If we’re seeing a half-million increase in a single year … we’re seeing substantial increases in a much shorter time,” he said.
In 2010, the Park set a record of 3.6 million visitors. If the Park received that same attendance this year, it would be the lowest tally since 2014.
These crowds have slowed down traffic flows, while the “bear jams” and “bison jams” make matters even worse. But Sholly added, even on some of the worst traffic days, congestion usually dissipates by midday at the busiest gates.
Traffic is not evenly distributed throughout the Park, most problems occurring in certain hotspots like Old Faithful, Midway Geyser, Norris and Canyon Village. Other locations, especially on the eastern half of the Park, are usually much less clogged with vehicles.
“There’s not one single solution that solves every problem when it comes to congestion,” Sholly said.
When it comes to managing traffic jams in the Park, Sholly said the Park will opt for lower hanging fruit when it comes to restrictions, with parking limits likely one of the first solutions.
Senators talk parks
Crowd management at national parks was a topic of conversation in a U.S. Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., in late July.
National Park Service Regional Director Michael Reynolds told the senators, “Timed entry has spread successfully, visitation throughout the day, decreased congestion and reduced queuing at the entrance stations and parking lots.”
Kevin Gartland, CEO of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, although commending how the practice helped Glacier National Park and nearby businesses, also expressed criticism for the way the timed entry system was implemented.
“The fact that the new system was rolled out very late in the game, just a couple of months before the summer crush hit, caused a lot of confusion and frustration,” he said.
Lack of employees at Yellowstone was also a topic of the Senate discussion. Staffing at Yellowstone has not changed in about 20 years, stuck at about 350 full-time employees.
Reynolds said Great America Outdoors Act Funds could be used to help with staffing issues in the Park.
“We are going to be focused very much on meeting a staffing level with these visitation levels as far as visitor use management,” he said.
Sholly said the Park is short on law enforcement, paramedic, and custodians – needed to help with sanitation measures like cleaning bathrooms and emptying trash, problems he said have been particularly noxious this summer.
“My top priority is protecting the Park resources and identifying those impacts that will have as high as possible effect on the Park,” he said.
Sholly commended his staff for the work they have done this summer.
“Our team has been doing an outstanding job,” he said. “There has been no shortage of interesting things happening.”