Two years of record tourism have shown Yellowstone National Park didn't lose its luster in the 1988 wildfires that scorched the park, but the crowds have some people wondering how many visitors the park can stand.
While park officials don't think the "Yellowstone experience" has suffered from the increasing number of tourists, others are concerned that the 2.2 million-acre park is struggling to bear the load."We've seen in the past few years much higher visitation in the spring months and in the fall," said Ed Lewis, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "In the past when you had very high visitation in the summer, at least the resources in the park . . . had a chance to recover before the next press of visitors.
"That's becoming increasingly less of a case," Lewis said. "I know just from talking to people in the middle of the summer, you just have endless traffic jams in the park, worse than before. The period of high use is getting extended each year."
In 1987, the year prior to the forest fires, 2.58 million people visited the park. The fires held 1988 visitation down to roughly 2.2 million as some of the entrances were temporarily closed along with some of Yellowstone's lodgings.
In 1989, when people flocked to the park to see how the fires had affected it, visitation jumped to a record 2.68 million. This year Yellowstone visits set another record, 2.8 million, according to park officials.
"Our fundamental mission is . . . fairly simple," Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee said. "That is, provide for public use and enjoyment and at the same time preserve the inherent assets for which the park was established."
While Lewis maintains that Yellowstone is approaching its carrying capacity of humans because of the extended seasons and strain on the flora and fauna, Barbee disagrees.
"I guess I would contend that we're not dealing in that kind of quantum leap in numbers," the superintendent said. "People come from a long way away, and I guess I feel that we're somewhat fortunate that we're not besieged by tremendous numbers. And if we were, we would have to deal with it.
"Right now, I don't see any big problem," Barbee said.
But when he discusses Yellowstone visitation, Lewis points to the strain he sees people placing on grizzly bears that are rising in number in the park.
Five years ago then-Interior Secretary Donald Hodel spoke of the growing need to perhaps limit the annual droves of people that crowd Yellowstone, Yosemite and other national parks.
"That heavy use takes away from the park experience for visitors," Hodel said at the time. Solutions to the problem, he said, might be to limit visitation "during peak-load periods," or work to "encourage people to come at different times of the year or to use different modes of transportation."
While Barbee agrees there are times during the summer months when traffic jams can be found on the "Grand Loop" that circles the park's interior, he doesn't see a need now to limit visitation.
"A lot of it is a matter of perception. But I honestly do not think, that except in isolated circumstances on certain days of the year . . . that we have a crowding problem," the superintendent said.
"We do not see on the near-term horizon any effort on our part to go into some limitation on visitation," he said.
The park is changing to accommodate the slowly increasing crowds, however, Barbee said.
While two decades ago backpackers didn't need a permit to venture off the beaten path in Yellowstone, he said, today such permits are mandatory and occasionally scarce during peak seasons. Catch limits also are imposed on fishermen.
Lewis wants the National Park Service to institute additional measures to ease the crowds. One possibility, he said, would be to alter seasonal openings, such as delaying the spring opening of Lake Hotel and its surrounding cabins.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition also wants the Park Service to take a look at what kind of toll the burgeoning winter tourism industry is having on Yellowstone.
"For years we have been asking the park to do further analysis and planning of the winter season," said Lewis. "We're really concerned. We're very concerned that the analysis has not been done to determine the impacts of this increased winter visitation."