Is the Yellowstone Region Being Loved to Death?

As visitation numbers continue to climb, conservationists are trying to protect local ecosystem

By Brett French | Billings Gazette (via AP)

BOZEMAN — On a summer’s day, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a busy place.

The Hyalite Peak trail south of Bozeman features a steady stream of foot traffic, one of the most popular forest recreation destinations in Montana. East of Hyalite Peak in the adjacent Paradise Valley, rafts crowd the shore of the Yellowstone River as people jostle to launch for a day’s float. In both places, vehicles are parked along roads and ditches because the parking lot at the trailhead and fishing access sites are full.

“More people are doing more things in more places,” said Scott Christensen, director of conservation for the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition advocacy group.

That prompts the question: How in the face of such recreation pressure can the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem be protected?

It was a query Christensen posed to a large group gathered in Bozeman on April 23 — academics, land managers, conservation group members and a few motorized recreationists — for the coalition’s two-day symposium titled “Our shared place: The present and future of recreation in Greater Yellowstone.”

Tackling such a broad topic across a vast landscape is no small challenge. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a 34,000-square-mile area with Yellowstone National Park at its vital heart. Spread across the corners of three states — southwest Montana, southeast Idaho and northwest Wyoming — the ecosystem encompasses five national forests that make up almost half of the GYE. More than one-third of that acreage is managed as wilderness, much of which contains the largest predator in the lower 48 states — the grizzly bear.

Recreationists flock to the region to fish, hunt, camp, hike, backpack, raft and canoe. They backcountry ski, snowmobile, motorcycle and ride ATVs. More and more people are moving to the area to be closer to such activities and the environment in which they take place — the forests, mountains, lakes and streams.

It used to be said in rural states like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming that residents couldn’t eat the scenery, meaning there was no economic value to such beautiful places. So natives moved away to cities like Seattle and Denver to earn a living. But now recreationists, researchers, government officials and businesses are touting mountains, streams and access to such public lands as moneymakers.

The advertising is working. More than 4.1 million people visited Yellowstone National Park last year. From that it’s estimated about 7 million people visited the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Most of those visitors are coming during the peak months of summer — June, July and August.

With more active people crowded into one wild space, what will the effects be on wildlife, the land and its waters? At what point does selling, building upon and using the resource compromise the very wildlands that first enticed everyone to the region? And how can so many people with such different ideas of playing in those places ever come to an agreement on controlling or even reducing use?

Yellowstone National Park — which has seen a 50 percent increase in visitation just since 2000 — has been studying many of these questions.

“We tend to look at problems in isolation,” said Christina White, outdoor recreation planner for Yellowstone. “This is very complex. Our biggest challenge is understanding how we operate as a system, and how does it change over time.

“Right now, all potential solutions are on the table,” she added. “But there won’t be a silver bullet.”

Sustainable recreation is the new buzz word, said Wendi Urie, recreation program manager for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, which has 68 percent of its lands in wilderness. Yet what’s sustainable about 39 percent growth in the forest’s visitation between 2008 and 2013?

“A lot of what we hear about daily is people and how they use the area — trail conflicts,” Urie said.

The forest staff is also fielding a lot more questions that relate to recreation, better trail systems, signage, better access, being more responsive to new technologies and activities, in addition to safety since more users are urban, she said.

“So how do we balance all of that?”

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