Yellowstone and the Park Circus   5 comments

At dawn in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin, Great Fountain Geyser blows off a little steam.

Yellowstone is the only National Park I have a love-hate relationship with.  I do not like so many things about this park, but I realized this time around that all of my disdain has to do with how it is managed by the N.P.S.  It’s not at all about the place itself.  I really love its unique landscape, its awesome geology, and (most of all ) its wonderful wildlife.

A frozen meadow at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, slowly thaws as the sun appears.

I worked a long time ago, for just one season, at Mt Rainier.  Many of us called it the Park Circus, and it has not gotten any better since then.  I know many people have pet names for the places where they work.  But it seems that when it comes to government agencies, these cynically funny monikers are especially apt.   The Farce Service, the Bowel Movement (BLM), the list goes on.

I visited Yellowstone late last August, and while (as always) it was pretty busy, I was able to actually obtain a campsite. Earlier in the summer it is very crowded, and I would avoid the place from about mid-June through mid-August.  I had hopes that this time around, visiting at the end of September, the park would be almost empty.

Unfortunately, it seems that everyone has been told Autumn is the best time to visit Yellowstone in order to avoid crowds.  As might be expected, this has resulted in a significant number of people visiting in September and October.  Add to this the fact that the Park Service believes it is uncrowded, and closes many campgrounds, lodges, roads, etc., and you have a bit of a squeeze.  They also cut back on ranger staff, which doesn’t break my heart at all.

I’m not saying that visitor numbers in fall approach those of summer, but I do know that it was plain impossible to get a campsite during the week I was there.  There is definitely a campsite shortage in Autumn at Yellowstone.  No problem for me, so long as there are not enough rangers to patrol at night.  I just pull my van off in a lonely spot once darkness has fallen, and at dawn I’m up and shooting, so I’m pretty much low-impact (if technically a scofflaw).

I noticed a big difference between these fall crowds and those of summer.  In fall, since it is cold, most people drive around and don’t hike.  This leaves the trails empty and the roads busy.  The Park Service encourages people to stick to roads at Yellowstone (I experienced this personally).  Their misguided belief is that this helps them to control the large number of visitors.  I had a ranger actually recommend that I drive up and down the Lamar Valley in search of wolves and other wildlife, which she thought were much better viewed from the roadside.  I wanted to tell her that, had I wanted to do the wildlife safari thing, I would have gone to the place a few hours from home, instead of driving two full days to visit Yellowstone.  I just smiled at her and kept my mouth shut.

Bison roaming the road at Yellowstone, and a tourist who had no idea they were that big.

And so during my recent week there, I ignored the standard advice, parked my vehicle, and walked some of the relatively short trails that I haven’t done before.  Last August most of my hikes were either longer trails or off-trail, to avoid people and have a better chance at wildlife sightings.  I think, what with the enormous size of this park, that there is already enough driving involved in simply getting across the park.

A male blue grouse displays in the forest of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Below are a few of the things I don’t like about Yellowstone.  All of these result from two things: (1) the high profile nature of this, the world’s first national park; and (2) the Park Service’s inability to see the forest for the trees, that is, it’s awkward attempts to “control” the admittedly large number of visitors.

  • For some reason there are many more “cop-rangers” in Yellowstone than in other parks.  Rangers you are likely to come into contact with at Yellowstone are actually law enforcement, not natural resources professionals.  They’re much more likely to be found inside an idling SUV (often barking at people alongside the road through a megaphone) than out on the trails.
  • Because these new-style rangers burn expensive fuel and wear out expensive vehicles, they’re naturally much more expensive staff to employ than traditional rangers.  Traditional rangers, that vanishing breed, can be found at points of interest, or out on the trails wearing out nothing more expensive than boots.  I believe the number of these police posing as rangers is overkill, a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.  It’s also one reason why I think the Park Service needs to become much more efficient in the way it spends its limited budget
  • From the time they arrive until the time they leave, visitors are pounded over the head with rules and regulations.  Any natural history education is cloaked heavily in rules and regs., and I think this dilutes the value of that education and turns people off.  Also, their “education” regarding wildlife is almost exclusively fear-mongering, an attempt to keep people from approaching the animals and getting their dumb selves hurt.  I agree with some of this approach, having witnessed some incredibly stupid behavior, but I think it is way too much.  Don’t they know people start tuning it out if they get too steady a diet of it?
  • The staff, of course with notable exceptions, is generally more tense and less relaxed than in other parks.  They’re also less-informed.  This last thing is very evident in the person of the growing legion of volunteers, but also is obvious with full-time rangers.  These are tough things to describe objectively, but they lead, just like the above effects, to a diminished visitor experience.

    Dry grasses rooted in cracked earth and cut by buffalo trails are typical of Yellowstone National Park in late summer.

I really believe the Park Service is shooting themselves in the foot at Yellowstone.  The agency’s budget is in truly sad shape, and the public face is all about rules and control, not about the wonders of the park.  A very big percentage of the N.P.S. budget goes to Yellowstone, whose roads are excellent, while those at (very busy also) parks like Mount Rainier fall apart.  Rangers patrol the roads in the middle of the night in Yellowstone, when there is nobody out – only wildlife which is at risk of being killed by the rangers who are paid to protect them.

The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

The N.P.S. needs good will in order to keep their budget from pulling a vanishing act.  They need people to actually donate to the foundations created for the purpose.  I’ll give you a couple examples why I will not support increased funding to the Park Service until I see major changes.

Just outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone is one of America’s most beautiful drives, the Beartooth Pass. This picture was taken on a hike near the pass, as a late summer thunderstorm threatened.

Last year I was watching, at sunrise with just one other guy, a buffalo herd cross the road to reach the Lamar River.  Along came a cop-ranger who leaned on his horn, blared through his megaphone at us to move our vehicles (we were off the road but our tires were touching the pavement).

I watched him actually bump one buffalo cow, who scurried off the road while her calf was left on the other side.  I was shocked, as he got out of his SUV and said he was trying to clear “his” road, and didn’t have time for this.  I got into it with the A-hole, but it was very apparent that he would have found some way to fine or even arrest me if I didn’t retreat immediately.  So I left.

Those buffalo, which were the target of this Police Academy refugee’s disdain, are the reason he has that job.  Their protection is the reason the American people pay his salary.  Those buffalo were simply trying to get a drink, in their home, not his.  What a jerk-off.

Another less-dramatic example: At a popular viewpoint, I asked a “ranger” (clean-cut and too chubby for being young and working in the outdoors) about a trail that took off from the paved path to the viewpoint.  He gave me a dumb look, and I volunteered a guess.  “Maybe it’s just a couple hundred yards to a different viewpoint?”

I noticed he had been reading a text, and he was stealing glances at his phone.  He seemed distracted as he said yes, I was right.   After he was gone, not trusting his answer, I went and found out that the trail was about a half-mile one-way to a very different and very cool lookout.

This post has grown too long, and it seems now that I’ve begun to whine too much.  So I’ll stop and make a promise.  My next post will extol only the glories of natural Yellowstone, which despite the pressure of visitation and the arrogant mismanagement at the hands of the Park Circus, remains a unique and wondrous place.

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5 responses to “Yellowstone and the Park Circus

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  1. I appreciate having someone actually take the time to write more than a tweetish response. You’re right of course about the rangers. I have run into many good ones, but they seem to be outnumbered by the cops these days. This started changing about 15 years ago (or more). Now, the NPS comes off as being much more concerned with communicating the same rules/regs. ad nauseam than they are with natural history education. I know the cops cover the whole park, in theory. But they are concentrated on the roads. And judging from the look of a lot of them they won’t be hiking more than the boardwalks until they commit to a fitness program. I saw WAY more cops on the Lamar Valley road than I have seen anywhere, honest! This is overkill. And it is a waste of money. Yellowstone like all parks has to live on a very limited budget (though it gets more than I think it should, to the detriment of other parks in the system). If the supervisor of this park is fielding an extra shift of fully salaried and benefited rangers in gas guzzling SUVs, just to catch a few people sleeping in their vehicles at trail heads, he is wasting our tax dollars. It’s that simple. If there are really poachers with night vision equipment prowling this park, that would be news to me. But it would also justify the money spent. And I’m sorry, I’m not wasting $4/gal. gas to drive all the way out of the park every night and morning. I simply can’t afford it, and I wouldn’t be getting a lot of sleep since I shoot very early and very late. I’ll say that autumn seemed to be more of a problem in this regard, b/c of the closed campgrounds.

    By the way, I am planning on writing a letter to the superintendent, but the tone will be much more direct than you suggested. It worries me that you have observed other rangers bumping wildlife with their SUVs. That suggests that this behavior (which is not just wrong but a violation of federal law) is encouraged by the superintendent. And to think I help pay for this. That really irks me!

    The bear thing is overdone, but maybe my couple dozen innocuous encounters with them in AK has made me a little too blase’. If there were bears with a taste for human flesh, the wildlife biologists would move or euthanize them, and yet rangers continue to play that silly fear-mongering card. There was apparently a couple years in a row with a very late spring, so food was scarce for the first weeks out of the den. Don’t know how much, if anything, that has to do with it, but grizzlies do not consider humans as prey (though of course there are exceptions and I know they’re unpredictable as hell). I had a young ranger tell me the bears were looking for food before hibernation, so I better watch out on the trail. I just smiled at her, knowing autumn as a relative time of plenty for them. I’ll hit the backcountry office next time, thanks for the tip. Anyhow, I’d rather see my wildlife away from the road, though I know my chances are slimmer. It’s about quality not quantity for me. And bumping into that wolf at 10 yards would probably never have happened following the wolf watchers up and down Lamar Valley. It was happenstance. Thanks again for the comments.

  2. Interesting points. I do find it curious, however, that you complain about rangers (unnecessarily) patrolling the roads in the middle of the night, risking wildlife; and then the next photograph you post is of Mammoth Terrace under the stars (indicating that you were out driving around after dark), and you freely admit illegally camping. Seems the rangers have good reason to be patrolling! You seem to think that rangers overemphasize the rules, yet Yellowstone is notorious for visitors failing to follow simple rules. 100 yards from bears and wolves, 25 yards from all other animals. You can visit You-Tube for dozens (if not hundreds) of videos of people being chased by every manner of critter because they failed to follow these simple rules. Folks are injured, and sometimes killed, every year as a result. Two men were killed by bears just last year, one of whom reportedly told a ranger who was trying to explain safety in bear country, that he was a bear “expert”. This happened just hours before he was killed and partly consumed. People who spend most of their lives in the city have no clue. They think they are visiting a zoo.
    Yellowstone is huge. It is as big as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Is it any wonder they require a much larger law enforcement presence than smaller parks? In addition to all the usual law enforcement issues, due to the large herds of animals and the fact that Yellowstone is surrounded by three states with a substantial population of hunters, Yellowstone also has a big poaching problem.
    While I would agree that some rangers are a bit over the top (and I too have seen rangers “push” wildlife from the roadway in the manner you describe-just plain wrong), for the most part, Yellowstone rangers do a heck of a job under difficult conditions. Have you ever seen a bear jam in July? There can be two hundred cars trying to park anywhere and everywhere, off the pavement, in the sage, in the middle of the road, 4×4’s driven up the side of hills! All while people are blocking a sow and cubs from crossing the road; or worse yet, approaching the cubs way too closely, possibly getting between them and mom! All of this hasn’t been helped by websites posting the location of each and every jam, I Phone Apps telling people where to find the bears, and half the people in the jam calling or texting friends to come see the bear!! The crowd just gets bigger and bigger, as two or three rangers try and contain the situation. Not a job I would want! And not a job for “regular” rangers. A job for law enforcement.
    BTW, I live just a few miles from the park and visit at least a few times a week year around, so I’ve seen it all. Give ’em a break!
    Nice pics.

    • Thanks for the comments. I agree with your observations, for the most part. I don’t think I ever claimed that all visitors bring their brains with them on vacation. I worked at a park once, after all. This last visit to Yellowstone, for e.g., I saw some photogs. blocking wolves from crossing the road while the pack was howling for them to join (ugh!). I admit I have parked at night in out of the way places in N.P.s, when there are no spaces available. Yellowstone has a camping space problem, especially when they close campgrounds while visitors continue to flood in during fall. I am extremely light on the land, however, as I am not camping, making fires, etc. Just parking to sleep is all, and never off road. I travel 25-30 mph at night (which isn’t illegal) and hardly ever go over 35, even in 45 zones. I’ve seen people going 55 or so at night through heavy wildlife habitat. Just dumb. Nobody who has been to Yellowstone fails to notice the sometimes idiotic behavior of visitors. These people are in the minority however. So why is it that the N.P.S. treats everyone like they lack common sense? Why is it that they hammer people over the heads with rules and regs., to the point where people naturally stop listening, instead of (as in the past) enthusiastically sharing in people’s joy at being there by educating. Education too often for the N.P.S. means fear mongering and rule hammering. Psst! Nobody wants to hear it anymore. And if the Park Circus would not encourage people to drive up and down roads to see wildlife, maybe the bear jams would not be so bad. Maybe the air quality in these parks would not be declining. When I admit I would like to see animals on a hike, I am encouraged by rangers to drive the roads instead.

      I do agree rangers should patrol at night if there has been demonstrated a night-time poaching problem. But too many of the guys I’ve met have been overbearing, out of place cops. Simple as that. They are people who obviously wish to be real cops, who were trained for that. And yet, strangely, they are not on the streets of L.A., they’re hassling tourists in a N.P. Very strange. As a local you might be guilty as well of just assuming that everyone who comes to Yellowstone is an idiot with no common sense. That’s okay, you’re not paid to wear a uniform and uphold the shiny naturalist reputation of the N.P. ranger. But when I get the “everyone’s an idiot” attitude from those wearing the uniform, I know I’m actually dealing with someone who can’t think objectively about the reality of the situation, or who is just burned out and shouldn’t be in front of visitors. I also know they don’t deserve a penny’s more budget. Not when they’re wasting money at Yellowstone the way they are. Not when that park’s roads are excellent (while other parks have horrendous roads); not when there are way more cops roaming around than in some of the most dangerous areas of American cities. Not a chance!

      But again, I agree with many of your observations. I know I couldn’t visit as often as you do. I actually prefer the more chill atmosphere at the Tetons.

      • You and I do agree more than we disagree. Certainly we agree that some of the rangers are over the top who often challenge people for not even doing anything. They are in the minority, however; even though it always seems like they are the ones you run into. Many of the law enforcement rangers I’ve encountered are great. I agree that there should be more “Interpretive” rangers, there just to help folks enjoy their visit. Blame that on Washington budget cuts, I guess! Now, regarding the law enforcement rangers: they are not wanna be cops. They ARE cops. Federal law enforcement officers; and believe me you do not want to mess with them! They are the only law enforcement for over two million square acres. Imagine for a moment all the police, sheriffs and highway patrol, total, in the states of Delaware and Rhode Island (an equivalent area). These rangers do the job of all of them. Like cops everywhere (and just about every group of people in any profession) there are some who are good at their job, and others not so much. When you have a bad experience with a ranger, it can be therapeutic to write about it in a blog, but probably more beneficial to get a name and write a calm, reasoned letter to the Superintendent explaining what happened and why you felt it was not handled properly.
        The fact is that most visitors to Yellowstone, while not idiots, are at best very naive when it comes to hiking in the very wild country that Yellowstone has to offer. Though trails in some areas, around the thermal features and the Grand Canyon, for example, are very popular and filled with people, there are places in Yellowstone where you can walk less than a quarter of a mile and feel like you are on another planet. Not see another human being for days if you so choose. Rangers tell folks to drive the roads looking for wildlife for two reasons. The first is that it REALLY is a lot easier to see wildlife from the road than while hiking. Animals tend to be a lot more shy when they encounter humans in the backcountry, plus you can cover a lot more territory in your car than by foot. The second reason is that the uninitiated (the vast majority of Yellowstone visitors) are a lot safer viewing bears and other large animals from the road, with other tourists (and possibly a ranger) around, than they are traipsing around the backcountry without bear spray or a lick of common sense. No one has ever been attacked by a bear while standing in a bear jam. Two people were killed by bears in the backcountry last year.
        If you want information about where to see wildlife while hiking, check at the backcountry office. They can be very helpful once they know you are knowledgeable. Regarding camping: There are campgrounds outside the all entrances, and even free dispersed camping in the forests just outside the park. As for the Tetons, it’s not so mellow down there anymore. Not since they’ve had all those grizzly sighting the last couple of years. Perhaps the real problem in these parks is just too many people on roads that were built and designed for 1930’s traffic. Maybe they just need to limit the number of vehicles in the park at any given time.

  3. Great points though, and photos. Def should be less cops and more skilled folks out there. I’ve been working to work in Yellowstone maybe in 2014 or late next year…but we’ll see.

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