Driving issues and visitation number fluctuations

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 10:55:13 05/23/14

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


I forgot to mention earlier that there are some interesting fluctuations in visitation to the national parks year over year. Social economists try to decipher them. When the economy gets bad, visitation often increases, and economists attribute it to people who would have flown overseas opting to take cheaper domestic driving vacations. Of course, when the economy gets good, many people who normally can't afford to take a vacation away from home suddenly can afford to visit their national parks, so visitation increases. Somewhere out there is the perfect set of circumstances that results in lowered visitation. In the case of Yellowstone, a rash of proximal wildfires can reduce visitation. There is nothing visitors hate more than having a pall of smoke obscuring the scenery and making breathing difficult, particularly when the fires are west or southwest of the park, so you don't get compensated by the opportunity to observe and photograph wildfire. I do remember certain years when visitation numbers were lower, particularly during the shoulder seasons. I just don't remember what the reduction was attributed to.

The driving behavior issue is a big one in Yellowstone. The former superintendent made it a big agenda item for her tenure. She had patrol rangers nailing people for speeding at a rate far exceeding what had been the norm. I am not sure how much of an impact it had. Unfortunately, if the driver is a visitor from afar, they learn a lesson, but soon head for home. The next day, week, or month, you are dealing with a whole new group of people. I've heard many people complain that most of the offenders are "locals". I can't deny the reality that you have some percentage of drivers that are commuting to or from work, and many of them likely have ID, MT, or WY plates. There is also a tendency for "locals" to visit Yellowstone in the spring and fall, so their numbers are up as a proportion of the overall driving population.

One of the problems that I see with vehicle traffic in Yellowstone is that you have one lane in each direction, but an incredible diversity of visitors and an incredible diversity of attractions. (I have heard more than one geyser gazer say that they broke all the speed limits racing to Norris from Old Faithful when they heard Steamboat was erupting.) In amongst the traffic, you have special interests represented. I have witnessed vehicles driving aggressively, until they suddenly see a particular critter. Then they immediately brake, pull over, and jump out of their car with their camera. You also have a diverse mixture of familiarity with the resource. It is so evident when you cruise the road across the Northern Range. You have new visitors to the park stopping when they see a bison or an elk, while the bear and wolf people zoom on by, intent on getting to the next bear or wolf ASAP.

In winter, we see a fair amount of conflict with the snowmobile crowd. You see people, some of whom are locals, others visiting from Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, etc., trying to get to and from Cooke City from I-90. Many could care less about seeing wolf dots in the distance, so they really put the pedal to the metal. I still remember the relative mirth of most visitors the night a snowmobiler jacknifed on the sharp curve by the Mammoth Campground, catapulting some snowmobiles off a flatbed trailer, out into the sagebrush. Nobody was injured, but there was quite a mess.

There are two extremes that tend to mitigate traffic conflict. One is the serious offseason, when the traffic on the Northern Range is so sparse that you can stop in the middle of the road to photograph something, knowing there is no vehicle within miles in either direction. The other is just the opposite, in July and August, when the traffic is so heavy, you have no choice but to just plod along at whatever speed the slowest vehicle is doing.


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