Tough time of year

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 10:00:45 05/23/14

In Reply to: Key phrase-- lower quality visitor experience posted by Gracie


Having lived in close proximity to the park for about 15 years, prior to my recent relocation to Alaska, I have seen plenty of what you speak of in mid to late May. I've seen the high traffic phenomenon, both bus and private vehicle, at the other end of the summer season, in the second half of September and first week of October.

The vast majority of those buses are transporting visitors that stay in West Yellowstone, although some are simply traveling through the park, having spent the previous night down around Jackson or up north in Billings or Bozeman. It wasn't until the surge of new hotel construction in West Yellowstone that we started seeing the corresponding surge in bus traffic in the shoulder seasons. Unfortunately, when someone invests the capital to construct those large hotels, they want to maximize the return on their investment, so they will try to entice the tour business. For a lodging operator, booking tours by the busload is a high profit, low overhead, proposition, at least on the up front. Overseas visitors, many of whom use associations, like alumni groups and church tours, or travel agencies, become educated about the desirability of skirting the prime vacation season in the USA, when the kids are out of school. This is why we see a disproportionate distribution of foreign visitors traveling by bus in spring and fall. (When I lived in Europe in the early 1970s, the word was already out among savvy Americans that visiting Europe in late June, July, and August was folly, for the same reasons.)

I suspect that the NPS has not made the adjustment to the new economic reality presented by the increased number of rooms in West Yellowstone. When I was a seasonal interp ranger in Yellowstone, we had seasonal training the week before Memorial Day Weekend, and finally, ON Memorial Day Weekend, we had this flood of seasonal resources to staff visitor center info desks and conduct roving interpretation. The walks and talks slowly ramped up over a period of weeks, to allow quality development time.

Most seasonal interps were either educators or graduate students. Some worked at seasonal positions in the off season in southern national parks or winter recreation areas up north. The majority of these people were not available for seasonal employment in Yellowstone prior to mid-May or much after Labor Day. I suspect the other divisions may be facing a similar conundrum in their seasonal hiring. We have to remember that the majority of summer positions in Yellowstone, both NPS and concessioner, are seasonal, bordering on 90% in many areas.

Further complicating matters is the annual fluctuations in snowfall. Snow removal is a major production. There are lengthy chains of process that have to be undertaken to gear up for visitor traffic in developed areas. One example would be simply getting the seasonal employee housing areas ready. In the case of the RV parks, first enough snow has to be removed to provide access for those who do the prep work. You can't start sending seasonal employees into those areas until you have undone all the "mothballing" that went on in October and November, and cleared enough snow for them to get their rigs into the RV park. The young seasonals, many of whom live in dorms, are typically students, who couldn't get there much earlier, thanks to their academic calendars.

I'm going to do a separate post to address the economic issue(s) of mitigating early and late bus tour impact.


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