Canyon Village, Wyo. — Jacob Baisley spent a few minutes taking in the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River at Artist Point during a recent swing through Yellowstone National Park. For many locals, it was the celebrated first day of the season when the East Entrance opens to autos. For Baisley, it was the latest stop on an extended road trip focused on national parks.
“This is definitely one of the best parks in the U.S., one of my favorites so far,” said Baisley, 33, a former Florida resident who quit his job and sold his house to spend months on the road, living out of his pickup truck. He had recently visited Yosemite, Sequoia and Olympic national parks.
On the first day of a planned two-night stay at Mammoth Hot Springs, Baisley had already seen a grizzly bear with its cub, several bison, a moose, a coyote and an osprey.
People Baisley met at other parks recommended he head to Yellowstone soon, to avoid the summer crowds. After spending three hours waiting in a line of cars trying to enter Yosemite during Easter weekend, Baisley said he would be planning his park travels more carefully.
Last summer, Yellowstone visitors routinely waited up to an hour to park at Artist Point, as nearby construction-related closures and heavy crowds turned the popular vista into a snarl of vehicles and pedestrians jockeying for position.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said dealing with the ever-growing number of visitors is the toughest problem he faces in managing the world’s first national park.
Visitation has climbed sharply, rising more than 40 percent over the past decade, while staffing and funding have remained relatively flat. Park managers say that trend has made it increasingly difficult to protect park resources while ensuring a good visitor experience.
“To get ahead of that curve, or even catch up to that curve, is probably the greatest challenge,” Wenk said earlier this month during an annual National Parks Day luncheon in Cody.
Following a 17 percent spike in visitation in 2015 over the previous year, park managers launched an effort to learn more about visitor behavior in Yellowstone, with en eye toward figuring out the best ways to alleviate congestion.
A Park Service social scientist led two studies in 2016 that looked at visitor experiences and vehicle traffic in the park. This summer, researchers will loan GPS-enabled tablets to randomly selected volunteer visitors who will answer questions during their trip. Separate in-person “intercept surveys” at key spots will also help gather more real-time feedback from visitors.
While no planning alternatives are being considered yet, it’s likely the data will be used to shape a travel management plan aimed at easing summer congestion.
There’s a chance that Wenk — who has focused on solving big problems in the park, ranging from winter use to bison management — won’t be around to shape such a plan. An April report in the Washington Post, which Wenk called “accurate but incomplete,” said he might be transferred to Washington, D.C. as part of a National Park Service staffing shuffle under consideration at the Interior Department.
Critics of the proposed staffing changes say they would be without precedent in their scope, and particularly disruptive, especially since the Trump White House has not yet nominated a Park Service director.
Wenk has served previously in Washington D.C. as the Park Service deputy director. He became superintendent of Yellowstone in 2011, an assignment he has described as the best job in the Park Service. The 42-year agency veteran said he did not know if or when he might be tapped for a different assignment, or whether he would retire rather than accept a transfer.
“I’m circling the drain,” he quipped. “But I’m not dead yet.”
As Baisely, the road-tripper, snapped photos of other visitors posing at Artist Point, he paused to marvel at the parks he has visited in recent months.
“This is just amazing, and I’m glad to be seeing it now when I can enjoy it,” said Baisely. “I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can, or at least until I run out of money.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].