From worker morale to preservation of the Park’s natural wonders, new Yellowstone National Park superintendent Cam Sholly spoke with a singular philosophical theme.
“We’re not just providing vacations,” he said. “We’re inspiring people.”
Sholly took over as chief Yellowstone administrator last fall, but this week represented his first public sessions in Cody.
At a cocktail party Sunday night and at the 69th annual National Parks Day Luncheon on Monday, Sholly laid out his vision for the future for the national park system’s jewel – the one located 50 miles away that is the engine of this area’s summer economy.
A career National Park Service employee, Sholly replaced Dan Wenk, who retired, though not on his timetable, after some tense discussions with the Department of Interior.
Sholly went to high school in Gardiner, Mont., the Park’s North Entrance while his father was a Yellowstone ranger. Most recently, he was the Park Service’s Midwest Regional Director.
Sholly was light on detailing new programs for Yellowstone, but after listening to input for the past six months, he outlined goals coming under the heading of doing some things better.
He embraced an expanded technological future, while holding steady to the ultimate core value of maintaining links to the past by preserving Yellowstone’s treasures.
Much attention was paid to the explosion in visitor count over the past handful of years from 3 million to 4 million and whether that strains the Park’s capacity.
A priority is to retain “a world-class visitor experience. I know this is near and dear to your heart,” Sholly told the room full of Cody listeners at the Holiday Inn. “What is 4 million visitors doing to the Park?”
While there has been much discussion about how many people Yellowstone can handle and studies sampling visitor opinions, Sholly is not rushing to judgment on major changes.
“We have an incredible visitor satisfaction rate,” Sholly said.
The challenge for the Park Service, he said, is to balance the outlook of the lone fisherman who just wants to catch rainbow trout with the desires of the first-time visitor wowed by bison, happy to sit in traffic for the privilege of getting up close.
For the 75 percent who may be on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, the day’s goals may differ than those of a repeat customer.
Probably the most congested area of the Park on a typical summer day is at Old Faithful or Geyser Basin. Sholly thinks more can be done to alleviate those bottlenecks, even tipping people off about the best times to visit a geographical feature.
There has been talk of closing Yellowstone to private vehicular traffic and shifting visitors to shuttle buses, something that would veer dramatically from longstanding tradition. But Sholly does not favor that idea.
“Some people want restrictions,” he said. “I don’t agree with that.” He wryly noted, “a large number of people favor shuttles as long as they don’t have to take them.”
No such major policy change would be thrust on the Park without communication between the Park Service and the gateway communities.
That outlook is one reason why this luncheon is considered an important communication tool.
“It’s very important that Cody continue to have a good relationship with the Yellowstone superintendent,” said Claudia Wade, marketing director of the Park County Travel Council.
“Once in a while we come together to remind each other about the partnership.”
Perhaps one of the most surprising topics Sholly broached – something possibly unknown to many in attendance – was a critical need for upgraded employee housing.
In peak season, there are about 800 employees in the Park. Of 450 housing units, Sholly said, some 75 trailers are in dilapidated condition, including many with mold. That has a deletrious effect on workers.
“We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the work force, including housing,” Sholly said. “That’s going to be the No. 1 priority for me as the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.”
A huge backlog of maintenance and repair needs has long been a Yellowstone need. Sholly estimated that combined with Grand Teton National Park it is up to about $1 billion dollar’s worth of work.
“We need to get serious about this,” Sholly said.
While Yellowstone’s 2.2-million acres are scenic and wild, criss-crossed by 400 miles of road, only 1 percent of visitors venture more than a half mile from one of those roads.
It is easy enough to experience a measure of solitude in the backcountry, but those who stick to their cars demand a certain level of amenities. They want to be able to use their cell phones and connect to the internet. In recent years, Yellowstone has greatly expanded cell service.
“The world’s progressive,” Sholly said. “My son won’t leave the house without his iPhone.”
Sholly is not going to put up cell towers that mar the scenery, but believes improving wireless service is an important perk to recruit high-level employees with families to work in the Park.
One day, if annual visitation reaches 6 million people, things may change. But Sholly does not project attendance leaps in the next five years will equal those of the last five years.
Included in the recent upsurge was a national advertising campaign to “Find Your Park” and the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
Despite the looming 2022, 150th anniversary of the establishment of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park, Sholly believes things will be manageable.
“We’re going to celebrate it robustly,” he said.