Preserving Yellowstone

By on November 18, 2014

Park visitation strains sustainability efforts


Jackson Hole, Wyoming – We all know the dreaded feeling of encroachment in summer, whether you are working overtime in the hospitality industry, passing tourists on a busy trail, or simply grocery shopping when there’s not a sprig of parsley left. The summer tourist economy is challenging for an island like ours, and not just for locals’ peace of mind. Our town depends on tourism, but that economic driver comes with a cost.

With Yellowstone visitation on the rise  – more than 3.4 million visitors came to the oldest national park in 2014, one of the top five busiest years since it started tracking visitation – and the park’s centennial celebration coming up in 2016, the Park Service is priming its gates for a record number of tourists.

More tourists means more waste to dispose of, more car exhaust, more power and water usage, and a bigger carbon footprint. For the park and its gateway communities, increased visitation will put a strain on current sustainability efforts.

Local economies

Jonathan Schechter, executive director of Charture Institute, an economic think tank that measures growth and supports sustainability, is concerned about the future of gateway communities. He disputes Yellowstone’s visitation numbers, which have fluctuated because the methodology of counting cars entering the park has changed.

“The dirty little secret of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park” is that they have limited occupancy, he said. “You just can’t cram too many more people into Yellowstone. If a lot more people do come to Yellowstone, where are they going to stay? They are going to have to spill over into gateway communities. It’s not an issue being widely addressed.”

111914feature.winterhikeSchechter says there are a “panoply” of issues to talk about from an economic point of view. Lodging is expanding and summer occupancy rates have increased, according to the Chamber of Commerce’s barometer. But how can these businesses remain economically viable when their peak season is only three months long? Where will they house their employees?

“We need to ask the question, is the town infrastructure filled too?” Schechter said. “I think it’s a fair question. I don’t know what the answer is.”

In addition to economic and environmental concerns, there is the question of visitor experience. Our public lands, which make up 97 percent of Teton County, make us valuable to tourists and vulnerable to criticism at the same time. As we try to accommodate more visitors, what is the impact on them?

“Roads in Yellowstone are so packed it is starting to  diminish the visitor’s experience,” EcoTour Adventures owner Taylor Phillips said. “I would love to see better transportation options and incentives for visitors to use those options.”

EcoTour Adventures offers tours in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks is buying new vehicles and hiring more drivers to help alleviate the congestion. He says we are already “over capacity” and he is truly concerned about the environmental impact.

Leading by example

Phillips himself is an example of a business owner who is adopting sustainable practices in conjunction with creating a sound business. He uses alternative fuel to lower his emissions and is getting a sustainability audit by the Riverwind Foundation to streamline his business and make it as green as possible. He is considering adding compressed gas from the pipeline in Sublette County. Phillips donates 2.5 percent of his gross earnings to nonprofit organizations that protect wildlife, such as Craighead Beringia South.

Riverwind founder Timothy O’Donoghue says the beauty of our community is that it attracts people like Phillips, who are environmentally conscious and interested in sustainability. Riverwind is a nonprofit organization established to empower individuals and businesses with an exchange of perspectives on sustainability efforts.

When O’Donoghue was head of the Chamber of Commerce in 2012, Jackson was chosen by Global Sustainable Tourism Council as one of six unique destinations in the world to participate in a sustainability survey. Jackson met approximately half of the 120 indicators for sustainability, with strengths in natural and cultural preservation and environmental management, but with needs to develop stronger destination management and planning. The report found that while there are good efforts being made individually, our community has no program or organization that integrates and unifies these efforts and works to ensure that sustainability is integrated into the planning and operations of the public and private sectors of our community.

“I don’t think we have found our identity as a community,” O’Donoghue said. “But we are much further along than many, and we have an opportunity to be a model for the world.”

With a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Office, Riverwind is offering technical assistance for 20 Jackson businesses, including EcoTour Adventures. Riverwind matches the businesses with a consultant between now and May to help them discover ways to conserve waste, make purchasing more environmentally friendly, and support the local infrastructure. The cost? Less than $100.

Riverwind is holding its third annual sustainability workshop series, which started this week, to educate community leaders on how to be more environmentally and socially responsible.

As an independent contractor himself, O’Donoghue took advantage of Energy Conservation Works audit program with Lower Valley Energy and put five digital thermostats in his home office. The audit, which costs $100, is free if you implement one of the recommendations. By setting the thermostat to lower the temperature at night and while he is out during the day, he expects to make up the $125 it cost him to replace them in no time.

Going green in the park

Just like individuals, national parks can get energy audits. A recent audit of Yellowstone’s warehouse electrical use revealed savings of $400 a month with the use of LED lights and other technology. It is expected to make up for the cost of its government subsidized audit in the next two and a half years, said Justin Cook, environmental, interpretive and risk director for Yellowstone.   

“In reaction to larger groups showing up every season, we need to step it up in the sustainability field just to be able to manage those folks,” Cook said.

The audit is one of many ways Yellowstone is making efforts to address the implications of growing visitation, within the confines of its budget and the regulations under which it operates.

“We can’t go putting solar panels on everything,” Cook said. “We have to pick our battles. There are a lot of old fixtures and technology, but the buildings are registered as national historic structures.”

111914feature.photobombPark stores and campsites pose a big challenge when it comes to waste because all of the trash goes in one bin. The park’s waste facility is near capacity, Cook said, and reducing waste is essential. The company has a zero waste campaign going on, with a goal to divert 90 percent of its trash from the landfill by 2016. It is also making efforts to sort the trash earlier to reduce labor on the back end. Right now, everything you throw away has to be sorted. But the park hopes to change that by painting recycling bins and making them more visible with messaging.

Reducing plastics is another ongoing effort. While the stores still sell water for health and safety reasons, the park has added hydration stations at eight of their 12 general stores. Reusable bottles are sold for $1.99, the same price as a water bottle. Responsibility begins with purchasing, said Cook, who is working with vendors to reduce the amount of plastic and packaging coming into the park.

Gateway synergies

The park receives a dwindling base of $33.8 million per year from Congress, less than half of its operating budget. An additional $42 million comes from other sources, including Yellowstone Park Association and Yellowstone Association, according to Al Nash, Yellowstone chief of public affairs.

Yellowstone brought $451 million to the surrounding region in 2013, according to the National Parks Visitor Spending Effects Report.

“We recognize that we are an important economic contributor to the region,” Nash said. At the same time, the increase in visitation puts pressure on basic infrastructure needs like health care facilities and employee housing.

“There are synergies between the gateway communities, so it makes sense that regional problems can have regional solutions,” said Rob Gilmore, executive director of Northern Rocky Mountain Economic Development District.

In an effort to collaborate with businesses outside Wyoming, Yellowstone Park Foundation established Gateway Businesses for the Park program. The program brings together Xanterra, the park’s lodging company, Bozeman International Airport, and small businesses like East Slope Outdoors and Gardiner Travelodge. The program encourages visitors to support businesses that support the park. This adds to the social and economic component of a sustainable regional vision.

Yellowstone is ahead of the curve in telling the story of how visitation to national parks has impacted the economic ecosystem of their environs. The first and oldest national park and the second largest behind Death Valley will be the subject of a much-talked about National Geographic issue next year leading up to the national parks centennial.

“Without a doubt the National Geographic issue is going to have an impact on visitation and an environmental impact,” said Yellowstone’s Environmental Interpreter Justin Cook.

111914feature.bisonjamWith its an active supervolcano, explosive geysers, one of the largest grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states, the largest elk populations in the world and the only place buffalo have survived since primitive times, there will be lots to talk about.

But there is no doubt that the increased publicity will come with increased environmental impacts, especially if there is increased connectivity. Earlier this month, The Associated Press reported that park officials are in preliminary discussions with CenturyLink to install a $34 million fiber-optic line through Grand Teton National Park and into Yellowstone.

How much modernization can our historic national park handle? As Yellowstone and its gateway communities become increasingly accessible and desirable as travel destinations, sustainability efforts will have to step up their game.

O’Donoghue encourages communities to integrate the triple bottom line of financial, environmental and social responsibility. He sees the central question for the future as, “How do we as a destination maintain our integrity?”

About Julie Fustanio Kling

You must be logged in to post a comment Login