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Yellowstone Tourism Leaving Massive Carbon Footprint

Striking new study quantifies Yellowstone tourism emissions. TLDR: it’s a lot of CO2.

Traffic waits in queue at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, July 2015. That year, Yellowstone saw about 4.1 million visitors. Last year, the park admitted half a million more visitors through its gates. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
Traffic waits in queue at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, July 2015. That year, Yellowstone saw about 4.1 million visitors. Last year, the park admitted half a million more visitors through its gates. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
by Julia Barton

A new study highlights Yellowstone National Park as an example of the impact tourism is having on carbon dioxide emissions, citing that park visitation produces more than a megaton of CO2 emissions annually. The average American emits roughly 900 kg of CO2 per year; the average Yellowstone visitor, however, emits 479 kg of CO2 during their park visit alone, the bulk of emissions coming from travel to and from the destination.

The study, published in PLOS Climate earlier this month, aims to quantify park emissions and explore potential reduction strategies. Tourism is a profitable industry with emissions that are expected to increase by 161 percent in the next decade, the study reports, and the country’s first national park acts as a microcosm for the role tourism plays in contributing to our warming climate.
Tourism is a profitable industry with emissions that are expected to increase by 161 percent in the next decade, the study reports.
“Nature-based tourism provides numerous personal and social benefits to tourists; it also plays an essential role in the economies of many municipalities, counties, states, and even countries,” note the study’s authors, comprised of researchers from Clemson and Utah State universities, and the U.S. Geological Survey. “However, focusing primarily on the social and economic benefits of tourism obfuscates the many environmental costs of tourism. Principal amongst these effects are CO2 emissions, for which tourism contributes 8 percent globally.”
Yellowstone hosts more than 4 million visitors annually and attracts travelers from across the globe. Transportation to and from the park made up 90 percent of the annual emissions reported in the study, which uses data from secondary sources published between 2000 and 2021. More than one-third of visitors fly to the destination, producing nearly three-quarters of transportation-related emissions. Transit within the park and accommodations were responsible for 5 and 4 percent of emissions, respectively. General park operations contributed 1 percent.

Tourism is also the lifeblood for gateway communities. The National Park Service reported that visitors spent $452 million in locales surrounding Yellowstone in 2022, supporting 6,234 local jobs. As such, the study advocates not for decreased visitation but rather the implementation of thoughtful reduction strategies.

“While tourism does contribute significantly to CO2 emissions globally, tourism to parks like Yellowstone NP can lead to indirect environmental benefits,” the study states. “Visiting parks and protected areas can increase pro-environmental behaviors at home, some of which have been shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Visitors can reduce their footprint through prioritizing fuel-efficient travel, driving instead of flying, and camping as opposed to booking hotel rooms. Parks can decrease CO2 output by promoting regional travel and providing emission data for reduction planning. The study notes that previous research suggests the park is likely a “net carbon sink,” meaning its protected forests absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere than is emitted by tourism.

While Yellowstone was the focus of the study, its research methodology can be applied to various other tourist destinations to determine where emissions could be reduced while maintaining visitation rates. Effective strategies will vary, but the study emphasized that, for Yellowstone, targeting a reduction in non-local visitors would have the largest impact.

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Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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