Why Yellowstone National Park Needs a Shuttle System

Tourist too close to bison

Yellowstone National Park is exhausted and over-stressed. It’s so heavily visited and trampled in the summers that I believe it’s currently left with only two options. The first option is to completely revamp all the parking lots, consuming and overtaking more natural resources from fragile ground, as well as adding in four-lane highways to account for ever-increasing traffic to an already stressed park. The other option is to close all roads to the majority of motorized traffic from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I don’t doubt that many people would find this preposterous, impossible, and unrealistic, but I argue that the park is currently left either with embracing this option, or continuing to devour its own natural resources in an attempt to scale to meet increasing demand, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.

Before getting defensive, there would of course be exceptions, ensuring that Yellowstone’s most frequent and active visitors aren’t affected at all, but first, step back and look at the National Park Service as a continually evolving entity. The National Parks are, and have always been, an ongoing experiment. The finality and completion of a park like Yellowstone is about as stable as the volcano and fault lines that it rests on. This completely moots any argument about "breaking tradition", an argument that never carries any weight in any circumstance.

Tourist crawling into thermal feature

The argument for a shuttle system is very simple. During my experience guiding throughout Yellowstone National Park for the past four summers, I observed a very consistent pattern among the vast majority of Yellowstone National Park’s visitors:

  1. Drive to and park at roadside feature.
  2. Get out.
  3. Observe.
  4. Check it off the list.
  5. Repeat.

This population of people enter the park around mid-morning and are out before dinner, unless camping or lodging inside the park itself. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of tourists would not be inconvenienced in any way by the use of a shuttle system, and many of them might even prefer it so they can admire the scenery instead of looking for an opportune time to pass the car ahead of them. Likewise, it would eliminate unnecessary traffic and subsequently all road rage resulting from hurried drivers that underestimated the time from Point A to Point B, making Yellowstone road rage a thing of the past, helping to preserve the wildlife there. Both Zion National Park and Bandelier National Monument use shuttle services with great success, among others, leaving the roads safer and more open for hikers and bicyclists.

As mentioned, there would be some exceptions. Many businesses rely on wildlife safaris in Yellowstone for a significant portion of their revenue. They would be permitted to continue operating as normal, resulting in increased traffic for them plus better viewing opportunities. This would also significantly reduce the stress for rangers controlling crowds near wildlife. Likewise, for avid photographers and opportunists, a system similar to Bandelier National Monument would be incorporated, making use of a flexibility in time. For example, if you arrived to Yellowstone before 8am you could drive in undisturbed. Gates would close at that time for the day, but reopen again in the late afternoon, around 5pm or so. For those wanting optimal light and wildlife opportunities, this wouldn’t affect them at all since most of them are already doing just that. Also, the road closures and shuttle system would only be in effect during the busiest time of the year, when Yellowstone is overrun with visitation and pushing the park beyond what its budget can handle.

Another exception would be local traffic simply passing through. Many of them aren’t concerned with site-seeing in Yellowstone, but simply want to pass through the shortest route from West Yellowstone to Cody, for example. A permit system could be offered for gateway community residents so as to not inconvenience them.

Tourist hanging from a car for a photo

Lastly, and most importantly, this would encourage people to get out and onto their feet, the way a national park is supposed to be seen. Edward Abbey made a similar recommendation decades ago solely for that purpose. Yet now, with park visitation putting unprecedented stress on the natural resources, the park seems to be caught without an alternative.

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