Yellowstone’s ‘Backcountry Prime’ faces uncertainty amid opposition to Amazon

A still image from a video posted to YouTube shows Old Faithful erupting as seen from a camera drone in 2013, before Yellowstone National Park and the National Park Service banned unmanned aerial vehicles.

A still image from a video posted to YouTube shows Old Faithful erupting as seen from a camera drone in 2013, before Yellowstone National Park and the National Park Service banned unmanned aerial vehicles.

CODY, WYO. — A controversial preliminary proposal to team a major corporate sponsor with Yellowstone National Park in an effort to revive interest in backcountry camping may be over before it has even started, after objections from an unexpectedly high-level opponent.

Documents reviewed in late March by a number of news agencies detail a draft framework being considered that would govern an agreement between Yellowstone and online retail giant Amazon.com. The partnership would leverage the popularity of the Amazon Prime two-day delivery service to help novice hikers and campers better navigate the backcountry.

But growing objections from President Donald Trump over Amazon’s business practices have cast doubt on whether the proposal will move forward. The apparent confusion over the plan is seen as a setback for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has backed the effort as an example of how U.S. corporations can partner with federal land agencies to raise funds and awareness for national parks, forests and other public lands.

A series of emails and other documents outlining the so-called “Backcountry Prime” plan were first leaked to news media by the Friends of Yellowstone Alliance. They describe how Amazon would work with the National Park Service to create a special online shopping and recommendation list for park visitors, particularly those planning hikes or overnight camping trips into Yellowstone’s backcountry.

Visitors could buy everything from bug repellant to winter parkas with the click of a mouse, and have it delivered within two days, all without signing up for Amazon’s Prime delivery service, according to details of the plan. Deliveries could even be made to spots inside park boundaries, from an in-park warehouse.

But the proposal has met resistance both from environmental groups and from the White House as word of a planned drone delivery service have emerged, and as Trump’s ire with Amazon has grown, resulting in an angry Twitter outburst Saturday.

“It is reported that the U.S. Post Office will lose $1.50 on average for each package it delivers for Amazon,” Trump tweeted. “This Post Office scam must stop. Amazon must pay real costs (and taxes) now!” He also criticized “The Fake Washington Post,” owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, saying the newspaper should register as a lobbyist. The Post has printed facts embarrassing to Trump.

It is unclear whether Bezos — whose net worth is estimated at more than $100 billion — was aware of or involved in discussions with Interior and Park Service officials about the Backcountry Prime plan.

No-drone zone

Sharm Dresden, wildlife policy specialist for the Friends of Yellowstone Alliance, said her group and others like it were opposed to portions of the Backcountry Prime plan that would have allowed Amazon to operate a fleet of drones to deliver small “necessity and comfort items” to backcountry hikers and campers in Yellowstone.

“People come to Yellowstone to escape things like drones and enjoy the park’s beauty without a disturbance like that,” she said. “If the park’s earliest visitors didn’t need drone delivery, why does that make sense today?”

Yellowstone spokesman Stan Thatch declined to comment on the Backcountry Prime plan, referring questions to Zinke’s office.

A person at the Department of the Interior familiar with the plan said Amazon’s drone deliveries would have been limited at first to only a few backcountry campsites and select trails as part of a pilot program to be rolled out in Yellowstone, and possibly other national parks in the future.

“We’re talking about using a very quiet drone to send something important like a lighter or first aid kit to someone who forgot those kinds of things, and needs them on a hike or an overnight trip,” said the person, who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly about the program.

Some local support

Some local government officials have expressed support for Backcountry Prime, saying anything that helps get park visitors out of their cars and into more dispersed areas is good for Yellowstone.

“I have no doubt Buffalo Bill Cody would have loved having a cigar or bottle of whiskey delivered to his backcountry campground by drone,” said Wyoming Rep. Teetrick Huddleton (R-Cody).

“The youths of America today have no concept of spending a night alone in the wilderness. So if we can use their iPhone addictions to help get them out into the fresh air and visiting the crown jewel of our park system, why not?” said Huddleton, whose name was on a shortlist in early 2017 as a potential nominee for the newly created position of assistant undersecretary for the White House Office of Public Lands Technology Synergistics.

Huddleton declined to comment on reports that he failed to receive a security clearance after reports in the Washington Post of his work in the 1980s wrestling grizzly bears in the former Soviet Union.

Any use of drones in Yellowstone would be contrary to a ban on unmanned aircraft in all national parks. A Dutch visitor to Yellowstone was fined more than $3,000 after crashing a drone into Grand Prismatic Spring in August 2014. A source familiar with the Backcountry Prime program said high-level Interior officials were considering rescinding the drone ban or carving out exemptions for certain commercial partners like Amazon.

Even critics of the Backcountry Prime plan’s proposed use of delivery drones praised efforts to boost backcountry visitation, which peaked in Yellowstone in 1977.

“The Amazon proposal would have allowed people to go online and book backcountry permits, buy camping gear, read campsite reviews and even watch grizzly bear safety videos, all at the same time,” Dresden said. “There’s a lot to like about that, but not at the expense of letting a major corporation ‘brand’ our wilderness or infest it with drones and styrofoam peanuts.”

Speaking on background, an Interior official who declined to be identified said that Zinke would continue working on the Backcountry Prime plan.

“I can tell you that I’ve seen some of the specific parameters for this program, and any packing peanuts would be corn- or soy-based and completely non-toxic and water-soluble,” the official said.

It was not immediately clear how Trump’s antipathy toward the company might affect the proposed program.

Contact Yellowstone Gate at 307-213-9818 or [email protected]

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