Scary observations on park crowding

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 10:22:21 08/11/17

I have read the recent postings on the summer crowding situation in Yellowstone and the NPS effort to develop creative new ways of dealing with it. By virtue of my 5 year sabbatical in Alska and my recent immersion in the park after my return, I have some observations and concerns I want to add to the discussion.

First, it struck me that somehow we appear to have hit a substantial tipping point, when the annual visitation moved from around 3 million to 4 million. Biologists talk about the "carrying capacity" of a geographic area, relative to individual animal species. I think somewhere between those two annual visitation figures, we exceeded the carrying capacity of Yellowstone, using present infrastructure. Just like the shock you experience when you see a young person who you have not seen for 4 or 5 years, I have been absolutely astounded at what I have been witnessing this summer.

This may sound like that classic behavior alluded to by Steve McQueen in "The Magnificent 7", when he talks about a fellow that took off all his clothes and jumped in a mess of cactus: "It seemed to be a good idea at the time". After a conversation on Facebook with a parent who was bringing her family to Yellowstone for the first time this August, I volunteered to show them around the park. Beyond a casual interest in re-experiencing that which I abandoned years ago, when I closed my tour business, I wanted to experience the Yellowstone that visitors are finding today. My normal Yellowstone behavior is very "adjusted" to the realities of the crowding, and since many of my day trips are for hiking in the backcountry, I get a much different perspective than most visitors.

Yesterday, we visited Artist Point and the Brink of the Upper Falls during prime time in the afternoon. I had never seen either location as crowded as I found it yesterday. It was unnerving. Given what I experienced and observed, I am quite surprised that we have not had serious injury or even, fatalities, due to the incredible concentration of humans from diverse cultures in such a hazardous environment. There were visitors lining the walkway between the parking lot and the observation area at Artist Point, 2 and 3 deep, many of them older folks of retirement age. The traffic on the stone stairways was constant and chaotic. There was substantial maneuvering going on by small groups ranging from 2 to 4 or 5 people to gain access to the edge of the overlook, for the purpose of taking photos of family and/or friends, with the Lower Falls in the background. Sooner or later, I fear, the intense competition for these choice spots is going to pair just the wrong set of hot reactors, and someone is going to push someone else over the low rock barrier, and into the canyon. The cultural diversity relative to crowd tolerance was on full display, with many Asian visitors much more comfortable in the setting. My family, from rural Wisconsin, had a hard time adjusting to that crowding, particularly the younger set. They bristled at being jostled by strangers who offered no apology. Their mother and I tried to do a quick education of cultural diversity, but it was too little too late.

These folks are on their own today and tomorrow, down in the Tetons. They will experience the "Lower West Side" of Yellowstone upon their return, when they visit the geyser basins. I have driven by the basins this summer, without stopping. The crowd size and contention for parking, with long lines of vehicles parked on either side of the road for a considerable distance, is very intimidating. I have looked at the throng walking the boardwalk near Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring, and been frightened at the potential for one or more people to be accidentally knocked off the boardwalk by the crowding. There are no guard rails in many areas out there. I understand that the NPS is making a good faith effort to develop a plan for coping with the crowding, but I am apprehensive that we are going to see some serious injuries or even deaths under the current situation.


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