Park Quietude

Infrastructure in both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks can only support so many visitors

By Kellyn Brown

As the National Park Service centennial ushers in record crowds, it’s common for superintendents to pour a little cold water on the celebration. The parks, they say, are near capacity. There’s not much room left for all the tourists.

“The question many are asking,” Dan Wenk, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, told the Christian Science Monitor last month, “is can Yellowstone escape from being loved to death? My answer is yes, I believe it can. But Yellowstone won’t be saved if we stay on the same course.”

And he’s right. Infrastructure in both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks can only support so many visitors.

Jeff Mow, superintendent of Glacier National Park, struck a similar tone when talking about the yearlong celebration as some of the most popular and accessible areas have become especially overrun.

“As we move forward, how do we help people with those expectations?” Mow said about the number of visitors flocking to the park. “If people know they’re going to be sharing this with a lot of people, that’s OK if they expect it.”

Both parks experienced their busiest months ever in July, with nearly 818,500 people visiting Glacier and about 996,000 visiting Yellowstone. As expected, both parks are again on track for record-breaking years, stretching infrastructure to its limits.

In response to the crowds, the Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote earlier this month, “The quietude of the national park experience is diminished when the experience starts to feel and sound like everyday urban bustle.”

It then advocated implementing a quota system, writing, “Set the caps already! We make reservations at our favorite restaurants – why should the concept of making a reservation at Yellowstone or Yosemite be any different?”

That seems a bit premature – at least in Montana. Yes, our two most popular parks are attracting a lot of people. But is the experience worse?

I just went on a hike in Glacier during its peak season, found a parking spot near the trailhead to Siyeh Pass (a relatively popular area), hiked the route and grabbed a shuttle back to our vehicle. Sure, there were a few others on the trail, including some familiar faces from town. But our group was mostly alone.

Americans looking for some solitude in our national parks should continue to book trips. They can find it. They may just have to look a little harder or climb a little higher. But it’s there.

Moreover, the parks have begun to implement solutions to reduce traffic congestion. In Glacier, a free shuttle system began in 2007. It has also launched a multi-year planning effort to address congestion on its most popular attraction, the Going-to-the-Sun Road. In Yellowstone, the park hired its first social scientist to study people’s behavior in the park, which may “eventually lay the foundation for possible changes in how tourists navigate Yellowstone,” according to the Monitor.

For all the stories about our busy parks, there are still plenty of reasons to visit them. The experience is worthwhile, especially off the beaten path, even in the most popular parks.

Following a recent visit, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Paul A. Smith pointed out that Yellowstone crowds “are almost entirely confined to developed areas of the park. It’s not hard to find seclusion.”

In a plugged-in world, what our national parks still provide is perhaps more important than ever. And while they’ll continue to search for solutions to their increased popularity, that “quietude” remains.

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