Scary-High Increases in Visitors to the Yellowstone Region

A line of tourists snakes past Grand Prismatic Spring on Sunday in Yellowstone. Results from a survey conducted last year found that crowding was one of the biggest issues tourists had when visiting the park.
BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette Staff

I just returned from a visit to Yellowstone and environs. My observation was that in mid-May the Park was a great deal more crowded than only 10 or so years ago (turns out my experiences and Park Service data are similar). There are at least three kinds of reasons for any open place to become more crowded:

A) People moving near forests because they like to recreate (increasing population in the local area)- therefore more use. This can lead to more crowding, on trails and on the roads in town, and ultimately being priced out of local real estate. Think Bend, Oregon, and so many others. But what can you do?

B) People who weekend or day trip in national forests from nearby urban or rural areas (what I’d call semilocal: 1-3 hours). As these areas grow in population, for whatever reason so does the use.

C) People attracted from other parts of the country, and the world to “location destinations” (some people would like their area to become one in the future, and would like to Parkify or Monumentize, others fear crowding and being priced out beyond the inevitable A and B.

The difference between C, and A and B, is that C is the product of active campaigns to get more folks to visit and spend more money. A’s, as they move into the community, may also contribute and volunteer on their local forest. Even frequent B’s often have special relationships with certain forests. Now I’m not seeing a stark difference, more of a continuum, but the Yellowstone Region has more C than other places I visit. When someone says “we want to be a world-class destination”, I’ll ask “who is “we”?” I like things the way they are, or with fewer people than now.

Here’s a few quotes from this newspaper article in Montana Untamed:

When asked if national parks and Yellowstone in specific are suffering from the success of national advertising campaigns encouraging visitation, Warthin said the promotions may have raised the profile of Yellowstone nationally and internationally, providing an opportunity to pass on messages about the “heavy responsibility we all have” to protect the park’s unique natural resources by being good stewards of the landscape and its wildlife.

The study noted that the number of tour buses visiting the park has doubled since 2010. “The West Entrance, already the park’s busiest by more than double the volume of any other gate, saw a 21 percent increase in visitation over 2014. From early June through late September, traffic backups at this entrance led to gridlock on four or more days a week in the town of West Yellowstone. Once through this entrance, stop-and-go traffic often continued inside the park for 11 miles to the Madison Junction, with driving times through this corridor consistently reported at two hours.”

According to this Billings Gazette newspaper article, there has been a 50% increase in visitation in Yellowstone since 2000, and the Gallatin has increased 39% in the visitation between 2008 and 2013.

Here’s a quote from the article that summarizes the problem:

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?


Some thoughts.. with regard to the local (rafting, ziplining, etc.) businesses that depend on visitors.. is that also “corporate greed” that has “corrupted” local officials in the framing we sometimes hear about other forest uses? Or just folks who are trying to make a living and their elected representatives? How can you balance the commercial and the individual uses if there is an environmental “ceiling” for recreation? And most mystifyingly, how can some of the many (many, many!) $ people are spending be channeled back into the Forests to help support and protect them (Parks have many mechanisms)?

14 thoughts on “Scary-High Increases in Visitors to the Yellowstone Region”

  1. Simple Solution – Manage it by limiting access or destroy it by trying to please too many people.
    It was too crowded in 1975/76 when we visited and stayed in a tent for two or three nights.

    Same problem as too many mis/uninformed people demanding a stake at the forest policy table. Ignorance driving selfishness is destructive anarchy if not managed.

  2. A lot to comment on here.

    Two years ago I visited Yellowstone with my wife and kids, a typical National Park type vacation. I used to live both south of Jackson in Alpine and Afton, on the Idaho side of Grand Teton, and in Bozeman/Helena, covering a lot of ground working seismic survey on National Forests, so I’ve familiarity with the area from 30 years ago.

    The two Parks and surrounds have experienced a lot of early retirees as well as people with other sources of income who wish to live in the area. In reading there are also a lot of people who move in when Yellowstone opens in the spring and stay through the fall. They all buy season passes and spend many days inside the park.

    I didn’t think Yellowstone crowded considering it was mid July in one of the most visited parks. We found parking especially at the many pull offs for not famous places. I expected to find an over touristed National Park and I did, what pleasantly surprised me was the care and consideration to make roads, signage, and other unnatural features as unobtrusive as possible.

    I doubt very much that anyone would be put off from the Park or from “Wilderness” areas due to crowding or overuse. At Yellowstone if there were an area with fenced off bears, wolves, bison, elk, and moose, I’m sure those areas would immediately become the most visited feature of the Park. People seem much more interested in habituated wildlife so they can attempt to make some kind of a connection, or at least take lots of photos.

    From conversations with Park Service officials I know that the Parks themselves have developed with the idea of visitors sleeping and eating and spending money outside the parks, the Park Service is not into more campgrounds, and the commercial interests of surrounding areas are much more into visitors spending time $$$$ recreating outside the Parks.

    It used to be we paid for Forests, Parks, and Wilderness Areas with taxes. Paying for stuff with taxes seems to have fallen out of favor. There was an attempt at a backpack tax on all outdoor related gear but that was quashed by the Outdoor Industry. The powers that be have the wherewithal to buy their own parks, like High Lonesome in Colorado.

    Recently I’ve read that credible sources attribute 10% of global warming emissions to tourism. I wonder if promoting tourism at National Parks and Wilderness is even something is something worth doing.

  3. This is not a unique situation around the rapidly urbanizing West. I spoke on this topic at the 23rd Wallace Stegner Symposium in March, 2018, “Western Playgrounds/Outdoor Recreation: Who Cares?” and shared the following stats: • Hanging Lake, CO (USFS) : 2013 – 90,000 visitors in 2016 – 150,000 visitors; Rocky Mtn. National Park: 2014-2016 – 30% more visitors; Colorado 14’ers: 2016 – 260,000 hiker days per year now – 311,000 hiker days per year in 2017; Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ Parks (NPS): 2015-2016 – 21% increase. The Forest Service sees 205 million visits per year (326 million U.S. population). Glacier Superintendent Mow also spoke and told the crowd that for the first time Glacier’s visitation exceeded that of Yellowstone, 1 million in July and 900,000 in August 2017. This is a big challenge with no simple solution, but rather multiple options that need a serious look. Curious? You can find my annotated Stegner presentation slide deck at

    • Commenting on your slide deck:

      Unfortunately, the idea that we can just get volunteers to do all of this work that the agencies can no longer afford to do (because of decades of stagnant or declining budgets) is, in my informed opinion, a happy fantasy outside of specific major urban areas with huge population bases and easy road access to public land work sites. (Think Denver/Los Angeles.)

      In more rural communities, encompassing the majority of national forests and parks, volunteer bases are already heavily tapped by a variety of community programs – there are only so many people willing to volunteer so many hours for so many causes, and there is a huge amount of competition for those people and those hours. Additionally, the “field season” when outdoor work can be best accomplished is also often the peak tourist season, where people are working maximum hours. As Baby Boomers continue to age, the amount of physical labor that can be expected from that aging volunteer population is also going to rapidly decline, and safety concerns will become of increasing importance.

      I speak as someone intimately involved in volunteer and service programs at the forest level; this may sound pessimistic, but it’s actually just about being realistic. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to leverage volunteers where we can. But they cannot ever replace the huge amount of work capacity that has been lost to land management agencies. And we need to admit that and understand that up front, if we’re ever going to grapple with the mounting challenge we face in public lands recreation management. Volunteers can help, but they are not the answer.

      • Also, “volunteers are not free.” Volunteer and service work requires organization, leadership, management, funding, project development, etc. from Forest Service staff, and if those staff positions aren’t there to support the work (and increasingly they aren’t), all efforts are going to be for naught.

        To use a personal example, four years ago I lobbied leadership hard, put together budgets and secured WO competitive funding to re-launch two residential Youth Conservation Corps programs on my forest. This year, one of the districts again discontinued their YCC because they simply don’t have enough staff to manage the crew and its program of work. It’s personally disappointing to see that work fall apart, but I can’t and won’t fault our people for deciding that they simply can’t “do more with less” anymore.

        • Travis- to me this is the #1 most important problem of the non-fire part of the FS. I’m sure recreation program folks have considered this and have recommendations. Also the volunteer and partnership folks. Is there any way we could learn what folks have already thought about as solutions and get copies of these documents?

          Are the rec groups getting together and lobbying hard for approps (like the State Foresters, for example?)? I would really like to learn more and especially if retirees could contribute to some of the organization and leadership (do you have to have the knowledge and training, or an ongoing paycheck?)

  4. The bottom line is that recreation-BLI appropriated dollars have to increase. We cannot continue to serve more visitors with less money. That’s never happening under Donald Trump and the Republicans who are running our country into the ground right now, but the alternative is simply disaster.

    • Travis- some of us never heard the “rest of the story” on the “budget busting” bill (regardless of the President’s inclinations or budget). How did that translate to rec funding on the ground? Is that documented somewhere? Thanks!

    • I agree that more visitors with less money is not going to work. But appropriated $ are only one way. There could be fees, taxes on outdoor purchases of various kinds, redirecting LWCF to support only ongoing federal recreation, developing an LCWF like fund using domestic O&G receipts or timber receipts, and I’ve exhausted my imagination.
      Speaking as a Boomer, I think that physical work is not the only work we could help with (and many of us are campground hosts, and so on). We could potentially find other sources of partnerships and volunteers.

      • Good exchange. I don’t think there is any one solution, but a basket of sometimes difficult conversations to start having about how recreational impacts can be addressed on federal lands. The land management budgets have been flat or declining for 20 years and this administration is part of that trend line and that will not change soon. Discretionary domestic spending gets smaller as the baby boomer generation ages and entitlement spending grows to meet those needs Volunteers are important partners, but are not the only solution. As I suggested in the slide deck, we need a menu of options, fees, rationing, volunteers who work or donate, maybe corporate partnerships to adopt a YNP or GNP road or a USFS campground . The Outdoor Recreation industry needs to consider how they can contribute to the care of the public land asset their business model depends on –“pay to play.” All of these options rile someone up, but need to be on the table for discussion. Finally,this isn’t a partisan issue, its about taking care of our PUBLIC lands — what is our responsibility to give back to the lands we enjoy? Is it just the taxes we pay or can and should we do more?

        • It seems logical that non-partisan issues would find general agreement. And then get solved! But, alas, politics is not logical :(. Maybe the Western Govs should set up a bipartisan group to look at policy options since the States are key players, and tend not to be as wrapped up in federal policy partisan bickering?

        • The statement about our budgets, “that will not change soon” seems to me to be fatalistic, and if it’s true, we ought to all just give up now.

          Speaking as an early-career GS-9 with what I hope is another 30 years of federal service ahead of me, if the future of the work I am passionate about is going to be endlessly shrinking budgets and org charts, boundless amounts of “do more with less” platitudes from leadership, and hopeless political floundering on the solution… then I really have to start rethinking my career plan.

          Please don’t tell me we don’t have enough money. When the DOD has to start holding bake sales to buy useless, overpriced fighter jets to prop up Lockheed-Martin’s profit margin, then I’ll start believing we don’t have enough money. We have all the money in the world; it’s a question of priorities.

      • I’m not sure where else the agency can legally/feasibly charge fees that we aren’t already doing so. Seems like the big push to identify those areas a few years ago was pretty thorough, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

        It would be nice if FLREA was rewritten/reauthorized to let us charge more “entrance fees” like the Park Service does, but that seems to be a pipe dream.


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