Archive for the ‘National Park Service’ Tag

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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