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Yellowstone: What Comes Next After The Covid Crush?
January 18, 2021
Yellowstone: What Comes Next After The Covid Crush?
Last year, America's premier nature preserve notched visitor records in the absence of international tourism. Steven Fuller sizes up 2020
For Yellowstone bison and other animals, merely crossing the road can be a hostile undertaking. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
EDITOR'S NOTE: Steven Fuller returns to Mountain Journal with a new dispatch to start 2021 after a year, he says, that was unlike any other in his nearly 50 years as a Yellowstone winterkeeper. Stationed near Canyon Village with close proximity to the western rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Fuller often takes photographs to serve as a sort of visual diary. As a MoJo columnist we asked him to provide a recap of what he experienced when an unprecedented crush of people descended on our oldest national park.
Story and all photos by Steven Fuller
“Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble”… 2020 brought the pandemic, a damned election and an American MacBeth on Twitter stirring the pot. All made for a long hot season here in Wonderland.
As coronavirus started to spread in winter, urban Americans across the nation found themselves living mostly inside. For months the more fortunate among them worked at home, home schooled, and lived up-close with the same people in the same surroundings. Weekdays were similar to weekends, mealtimes were often monotonous. Life outside the domestic bubble was minimal, there were no engaging office dramas at work and no fun with friends afterward.
The pressure built.
“We won’t take it anymore!” became a collective exhalation. For many, the month of May initiated the start of the summer break-out from lock-down. But outside, for many, traditional summer recreation was not an option. Sports events, the beach, concerts, fireworks, zoos, theme parks, movies, and international travel—all the activities dependent on congestion were forbidden or restricted.
If we can’t go to Venice or Disneyland let’s get out of the city and leave sickness and stress behind and find relief and a healthy life in the great American outdoors! RVs and camping equipment sales surged, no need to risk flying, or to sleep in motels or to eat in restaurants. So, in our millions, but for the left-behind under-class, we surged to the greener parts of America.
In the summer of 2020, national parks, to many synonymous with nature, were a high priority on the bucket lists of those who had never visited one. Unprecedented numbers of novices who knew nature only as it is portrayed on television saddled-up and headed for the hills. These urban plague refugees were the most recent of several previous distinct historic waves of visitors who arrived strangers to Yellowstone, but last summer the cohort was not quite like any ever seen before.
Many urban Americans left confinement in the city and set out for public lands, trading metro gridlock for traffic jams created by the presence of wildlife. While such scenes are appalling to many local denizens of Greater Yellowstone, surveys show many visitors don't seem to mind. Photo courtesy Steven Fuller
The first tourists to visit the new Yellowstone park in the 1870s numbered a few hundred a year. Most were regional folk who came by wagon or horseback, they shot game and attacked the ornate Old Faithful geyser cone with axes to liberate souvenirs.
In 1883, a railroad spur, part of the United States transcontinental system, reached the north entrance to the park at Gardiner, Montana, which provided easy access to a wider urban consumer base which was targeted in a national advertising campaign by the Northern Pacific Railroad , “Come Visit America’s New Wonderland!” Tours at the end of the rail line into the interior were continued by stagecoach until 1915 when automobiles were allowed into the park. The rest is history.
Visitation to Yellowstone for the next 100 years followed the familiar exponential graph curve generally doubling in predictable intervals of time as upward mobility broadened. During this American century visitation was largely middle-class white American families come by car; but in due course with the spread of cheap international air travel in the 1960s this long-established American tourism was leavened with increasing numbers of international visitors.
Annual visitation reached one million in 1948, two million in 1965, three million in 1992. “Yellowstone, we are loving it to death”… in the 70s this was a mantra first voiced by a prescient minority, but increasingly it became a cliché heard among the more sentient of the ever-growing numbers of visitors caught in Yellowstone’s summer gridlock.
But, unbeknownst to most of us, by the early 21st century the demographic composition of visitation to the park was on the cusp of big changes. Growing numbers of international visitors, particularly Chinese, surged after 2014 when US visa regulations for Chinese visitors were relaxed. Many arrived in tour busses. Four million people visited Yellowstone in 2015.
Tourists habituate a raven to a human snack. Doing wildlife no favors, lots of people every year have to be warned about the dangers and folly of feeding wildlife. "A fed bear is a dead bear" serves as just one mantra. With Park Service ranks understaffed, many rangers told Mountain Journal they couldn't keep up with natural resource violations, some of which resulted in harm to wildlife and geothermal features.
American behaviors that were widely accepted as givens in our national parks were culturally alien to many of the new visitors whose conduct was frequently shocking to park authorities and to traditional visitors. In response, so as to “protect the resource,” National Park Service regulations, education out-reach, and enforcement were expanded or tightened.
But a second challenge followed closely on the first. Due toworld-wide Covid restrictions international visitation to Yellowstone in 2020 was nil while a novel home grown demographic, urban Americans new to the natural world and to national parks, surged into Yellowstone. Visits in August increased by 7.5 percent over near record numbers in August 2019, by 21 percent in September and by 110 percent in October. Remember, these numbers were notched even without international visitors.
Swelling crowds consistently ignored the impacts of off road parking in pristine meadows or embarked on brief off-road adventures aboard their never before dirtied SUVs. Nose to tail parking off both sides of the highways extended for miles wherever proximate to popular attractions.
Dangerous urban style driving was usual on Yellowstone’s multitudinously hazardous highways whatever the road conditions. Hobbesian behaviors, characteristic of those who know only congested urban spaces, were the norm: aggressive tailgating, disregard of speed limits and stop signs, refusal to wait their turn at busy intersections were common.
Obedient persons who obeyed park speed limits inevitably found long lines of traffic accumulating behind them. Road rage and “The Finger” frequently accompanied any opportunity by those in the line behind to overtake, whatever the danger of doing so.
Unaware of the odds of colliding with a large mammal led to more than the usual numbers of road kills. Speeding was the rule, no matter dense fog, icy roads, or blinding snow storms. On average nearly a hundred large animals are road killed during the tourist season, a fact made graphic by the front end damages typical of the smashed up vehicles in the park’s service stations bone yards.
Top photo: While more than 95 percent of visitors to Yellowstone come in physical contact with less than five percent of the park, in developed areas and along the road system, wildlife still dwells within the long shadows of human presence and impacts. Photo just above: The aftermath of a car colliding with one of Yellowstone's wild ungulates.
In a fair turn-about every year naïve visitors are injured or killed by big animals, often when crowds surround roadside megafauna and unknowingly mimic a Paleolithic hunting party. Step into a bull bison’s bubble for a selfie and you may find yourself tossed up into a tree or groin gored.
More than usual last summer’s visitors demonstrated ignorance of the dangers of death by scalding in geyser basins when they left trails or boardwalks where they were oblivious or indifferent to the damage they caused to fragile mineral formations or unique hot springs ecosystem communities despite a plethora of warning signs.
Front line National Park Service employees, law enforcement rangers, interpreters, and maintenance staff as well as veteran concessions staff, locals and longtime residents frequently commented on the more than usual lack of civility and the rudeness of visitors, and were especially vocal regarding the increased dangers of driving.
The militancy, the hair trigger anger voiced or acted out when non-compliant visitors were reminded of the rules requiring masks be worn inside park buildings was the tip of the berg. More than was usual in the past rules were resented or ignored. Often, among some in the crowds, there was air of tension and anger, of rightist-libertarianism with an underlying augury of cordite.
“Behaviors that were widely accepted as givens in our national parks were alien to many of the new visitors whose conduct was frequently shocking to park authorities and to traditional visitors”. What has become the reprehensible national norm in recent years found its way into what John Muir called “nature’s cathedrals," remnants of which are for now protected in our national parks.
Toxic love, the ignorance and the anger of a minority ostensibly come to Yellowstone seeking solace soiled the cathedral last summer.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
ENDNOTE: Fuller's piece has attracted a number of reader responses. Here is one:
From David Gallipoli, former concession employee manager in Yellowstone and present owner of a building construction company based in Bozeman, Montana. He writes:
If we target one group, we miss the larger picture—visitors' growth trend to the Park and the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been growing for years and encouraged. The industrial recreation trend's unprecedented growth is inspired by advertising campaigns at state and local levels and by everything we share from our phones. So why are we shocked to see the behavior of visitors this year?
If I were looking for one word to describe what was taking place in our nation this year, it would be the word "anomie," defined as "the lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group." And that behavior was not from one group; we have all been participating for years. As Covid-19 raged, it appeared many people cared only about their freedom. Why was the Park opened when the NPS, Xanterra, and Delaware North knew they would be understaffed?
Should the NPS reexamine Xanterra and Delaware North's profit mission that conflict with their mission? The federal, state and local government's lack of leadership placed profit over preserving the Park. After weeks and months of abuse in the Park, the NPS did nothing but watch and, yes, try to maintain control. But the Park was overwhelmed by visitors because they were short-staffed? Were other options even considered? Strict visitor limits based on available NPS personal or closures to areas that were being devastated? Protection and preservation of the Park are the primary duties of the NPS.
There was a lack of leadership by the superintendent, Cam Sholly, and his bosses. I keep asking myself all year, Are we capable of changing our destructive nature, our behavior? I was hopeful Covid19 would be a wake-up call, but instead turned into a selfish nightmare for our nation. Yellowstone is known as "Wonderland," not an indigenous name. The Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, Nez Perce, and other tribes and bands lived in Yellowstone National Park. Since removing the tribes that lived there for thousands of years, one only needs to look at what we have altered in so short a period? Nez Perce Elsie Maynard wrote, "Our traditional relationship with the earth was more than just a reverence for the land. It was knowing that every living thing had been placed by the Creator and that we were part of a sacred relationship...entrusted with the care and protection of our Mother Earth. We could not stand apart from our environment."
If we continue to treat YNP as a commodity, then it will become a theme park. I am hopeful our new administration will appoint a new director for the NPS and thrilled we will have our first indigenous Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland. But, we all need to get involved and demand action from our leaders, change our behavior and make the necessary sacrifices required to pass on more than a theme park to future generations.