Under-staffed Yellowstone severely tested by record tourism year
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly has mapped out every square foot of sidewalk in the 2.2 million acre park. He scans the 1,750 acres of roadway in hopes of finding answers to the increasing traffic jams.
On this slice of the park, Sholly said Yellowstone spends 95% of its annual budget.
“We have a very, very big problem in a very small percentage of this park,” he said.
It is a balance between offering the public an unforgettable experience while protecting the delicate ecosystem of the park.
So far this year, 4.47 million people have passed through the park. The 2021 summer season in Yellowstone has been remarkable not only for the record number of visitors, but also for showing the effects of increasing crowds and what they mean for the future of the park, reports the Cody Enterprise.
“Staff are under considerable stress in managing this level of visits,” said Sholly.
The park has not been spared the challenges of COVID-19 as there have been 82 positive cases among the approximately 3,500 employees, a rate of 2.3%. That was about 20 more cases than the park had in 2020.
Although it hired more people than in 2020, Yellowstone was still understaffed all summer, in part because of the remaining COVID-19 employee housing caps and also its inability to find enough staff. ’employees to fill authorized positions.
“The labor shortage that many businesses have experienced across the country – which has hit Yellowstone, especially with some of the food and beverage operations and trying to keep employees and maintain service levels where they would normally be, ”said Sholly, a problem he considered“ particularly difficult ”.
It is unclear to what extent there will be a resolution of the labor supply next year, as COVID-19 precautions could still be a factor.
When there is a substantial increase in the number of visitors over a year, there is a trickle down effect that occurs in all aspects of the park. Garbage cans are filling faster, bathrooms need to be cleaned more frequently, and parking lots are filling at an unprecedented rate.
“What do 750,000 more people in a single year flush the toilets five times a day at your wastewater treatment facilities?” Sholly questioned.
He said park staff will be looking at these factors in the months and years to come.
For Sholly, it’s “hard to say” whether the pressure this summer will discourage employees from returning, but he added that Yellowstone isn’t the only national park dealing with these issues.
Many national parks across the country have seen historic levels of visitation this year, likely due to a trend of “revenge travel” brought on by closures the previous summer that kept many from going out.
“It’s a beautiful place, it’s a great place to work,” said Sholly. “But it’s also a very stimulating place to live and work at the same time. It is the cost or work in progress of being in Park Service or dealership operations.
But Yellowstone faces rare challenges exacerbated by pressure on the limited road network. Sholly considers Midway Geyser Basin to be the most congested area in the park and where he has seen the most extreme impacts from visitors.
In addition to the lines of traffic on the roads this summer, he also said parking lots have filled at a record pace. He said measures will likely be implemented next summer to prevent people from entering filled lots and causing traffic jams.
Last summer, the park tested automated electric shuttles at the campground, visitor services, and visitor accommodation area adjacent to Canyon Village. Sholly said he sees this project as a success and that he plans to use these shuttles in some form or another at some point in the future. The park is conducting a shuttle feasibility study in the Old Faithful North to Midway corridor to assess the viability of installing a shuttle service there.
Although the park has experienced its fastest growth in visitation over the past decade, this growth has not been completely linear. It took five years after setting the previous record in 2016 to reach a new high this summer.
Sholly said he doesn’t know what to expect in 2022 as domestic travelers may be fewer, but international demographics may be much larger as most travel restrictions will likely be lifted by then.
“Undoubtedly, the trend (of visits) will continue to be on the rise,” he said. “The general trend will be up, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a record every year.
“We will all have to be prepared for what I see as continuing downstream visits.”