THE BUZZ 2: Crowd Control

By on August 9, 2017

How soaring park visitation could rescue public lands.

Yellowstone crowds amass for one of nature’s displays. (Photo: NPS/Neal Herbert)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Increased visitation to national parks is straining federal public lands and infrastructure—but it’s also what will save them. That’s what former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell thinks. “If you haven’t had exposure, you’re not as likely to treasure a place like this,” Jewell told a Jackson Hole crowd Friday.

But as residents know, exposure, for some parks, is far from a problem. Jackson bursts at the seams with summer visitors on their way to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. This summer is shaping up to be Yellowstone’s second busiest in history, closely following last year’s centennial, park spokesman Jonathan Shafer said.

In 2016, Yellowstone saw a record-breaking 4.2 million visitors. In 2017, June visitation dropped 4.8 percent compared to last year, but NPS celebrated its 100th birthday last year, so millions of people made trips to celebrate, Shafer said. At this rate, Yellowstone is still well ahead of the previous three “normal” years.

Meanwhile, Grand Teton National Park is bracing itself for the busiest day—not season, but single day—in history come August 21. On an average day in peak season, spokesperson Denise Germann said about 20 to 25 thousand people visit GTNP. The Great American Eclipse is expected to be a well above-average day.

This peak visitation is all happening in a period of uncertainty for the National Parks Service and public lands as a whole. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget includes a 13 percent cut to NPS. Jewell’s successor, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is neck-deep in a review of 27 national monuments to determine if they should shrink, remain intact or be abolished completely. Mother Jones reported that of the Interior’s new confirmed staff, 21 have some affiliation with resource extraction industries. Only three have conservation or even outdoor recreation backgrounds.

Yellowstone was stretched for resources long before Trump took office, but a decreased budget will only put the park further behind. Approximately $632 million worth of repairs await attention, the largest of any park in the country. And while visitation skyrockets, the amount of staff the park employs remains relatively stagnant. The park has employed between 350 to 550 staff per year since 2000. In that same amount of time, visitation has increased from 2.8 million to 4.8 million. Accounting for such high visitation, Shafer said, has been a high priority for the park for some time now.

“We did a complete study last year about visitation in Yellowstone,” Shafer said. The results of the study will likely be released this month. Shafer could not readily share the exact results, but said that a big consideration the park now faces is how to manage visitor expectations and encourage responsible stewardship.

“We know all about all the different animals in the park. The least studied species in Yellowstone is the human,” Shafer said, borrowing a quote from park superintendent Den Wenk.

So YNP brought on a  team of social scientists  to study humans in 2015. The better they understand human behavior in the park, the logic goes, the more equipped park staff can be to manage and mitigate human impact—impact like overcrowded campsites, unsafe wildlife interaction (who can forget the visitors who put a bison calf in their car to save it), and all-around wear and tear.

Yellowstone, like many of its public land brethren, is a delicate ecosystem. The more people tread on its lands, the heavier the burden. Boardwalks intersect the park to keep visitors off of fragile thermal features. Signs warn visitors not to approach wildlife, for both human and animal safety. Locals know the saying: a fed bear is a dead bear. But it’s not easy for an organization to compel compliance or heed understanding from 4.8 million people.

Still, Jewell says not visiting national parks in this day and age is equally harmful. People are less inclined to fight for something they know nothing about.

Passing the torch

Jewell is this year’s Teton Science School Spirit of Conservation award recipient, and was the keynote speaker at Friday’s 50th anniversary celebration. But just six months ago, she served the White House as Secretary of the Interior. Teton Science School executive director Chris Agnew listed her many accomplishments during her tenure in the White House: “She brought conservation into the 21st century, bridging conservation, education and access,” he said. “Under her leadership, NPS expanded to tell the whole story of America, including Harriet Tubman National Historic Park or Stonewall National Monument.” Locally, Jewell helped designate 640 acres of land, Antelope Flats, as part of Grand Teton National Park.

Jewell also oversaw the designation of Bears Ears, which is now under review, as a national monument. Bears Ears, she said, is a perfect example of humans’ power to damage public lands, but also save them.

“Bears Ears is under threat in part because we all have geo tags on our phones,” Jewell said. If somebody posts a picture to social media of a cultural site, or artifacts, without removing the geo tag, “everybody knows where that is. That is a very, very real threat.”

But perhaps a bigger threat, she said, is to leave the area unprotected. As a federally protected land, Jewell said, “there are more people out there that you can educate on how to visit these places respectfully, that you can educate about the importance of leaving artifacts where they are for anthropology and archeology and future visitors of future generations.”

Indeed, people across the country, and especially in the White House, are less likely to care about the value of public lands if they do not understand them. If she were still Interior Secretary, Jewell said her biggest priority would be to make to make sure that “Nick Mulvaney and the budget committees in the house and senate, and frankly American people broadly, understand that there is tremendous value in public service, public servants, public lands.” Public lands, she said, make the United States “unique among just about all nations because of the treasures that we have under our stewardship.”

To land stewards and conservationists who feel disempowered, Jewell offers this:

“Elected officials care about what their constituents say.” It might not feel like it, Jewell said, “but they do listen.”

Also, money talks. The outdoor recreation industry, Jewell said, is “much bigger than people think”—bigger than automotive, bigger than pharmaceutical.

According to Outdoor Industry Association’s “Outdoor Recreation Economy” report,  outdoor recreation is an $887 billion industry. Consumers in Wyoming spend $5.6 billion per year.

Wyoming’s congressional delegation, however, has continually tried to pawn off public lands in favor of oil and mineral extraction. Rep. Liz Cheney’s voting record consistently favors transferring federal land to state control, arguing that federal management hinders resource extraction and takes jobs away from Wyoming’s workforce.

Meanwhile, OIA’s study reports that outdoor recreation in Wyoming creates more jobs (50,000)  than oil and gas, mining and extraction combined (27,000).

“There are industries in DC that are very narrow and very deep and very wealthy,” Jewell said. “They are speaking with money in a way that influences people on both sides of the table.” The job of the concerned conservationist, then, is to speak louder, and often.

Take, for example, Outdoor Retailer. Salt Lake City has hosted the bi-annual trade show for more than 20 years, and gains approximately $45 million in visitor revenue in return. But last month, OR said goodbye to Salt Lake because of Utah’s public land policies, including multiple attempts to rescind Bears Ears. Starting in January, Denver will host Outdoor Retailer and reap all its benefits, and likely more (OR is predicting an economic impact of $110 million over the course of three shows).

So keep visiting public lands, Jewell said. Learn responsible stewardship. Spend money where it counts. Show up. “If you’re not on the table, you’re on the menu.” PJH

About Shannon Sollitt

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