Over Memorial Day weekend, the Utah Highway Patrol shut down the main entrance to Arches National Park, citing dangerous traffic congestion and overcrowding that erupted as summer vacationers swarmed the popular geological nature preserve outside of Moab.

In response, the Arches park superintendent suggested that a reservation system be implemented to control the number of tourists, thereby protecting both the quality of visitor experience and the park’s fragile resources.

Almost immediately, tourism boosters in Moab raised their hackles.

Is the scene in Arches really any different from the crush of humanity that descends upon the blighted, overbuilt infrastructure at Old Faithful on a typical summer day, or from the congestion that grips downtown Jackson, Wyoming or the finger lakes at the foot of the Tetons or the gates at Gardiner and West Yellowstone?

 

“We just didn’t realize that what was coming was growth on steroids. What actually occurred, compared to what we thought might occur, left our best projections of two decades ago in the dust.”  Dennis Glick

 

Now imagine a 50 or 100 percent increase in number of people.   Far fetched?  Hardly.  This should lead us to ask an obvious question: Is it even possible for businesses and recreationists to accept limitations to prevent places from being loved to death?

In light of current population and tourist visitation trends, what will the highway systems, the development footprints, and expanding trail networks of our public lands look like in just 20 years?

As Jackie Skaggs, Grand Teton National Park spokesman, asked rhetorically this week while we discussed the already formidable impacts of growth: “When is enough enough?”

Twenty years ago, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition produced an unprecedented  222-page report, “Sustaining Greater Yellowstone: A Blueprint for the Future” written by lead author Dennis Glick, who today is co-founder of a Bozeman, Mont-based conservation consulting group FutureWest.   The document featured numerous case studies of how communities shifted away from dependence on single natural resource extraction activities such as logging, mining,  and ranching.

“We knew the region was growing in 1995, and that the economy was changing,” Glick says. “We just didn’t realize that what was coming was growth on steroids. What actually occurred, compared to what we thought might occur, left our best projections of two decades ago in the dust.”

 

By 2030, there will be an estimated 830,000 local residents in Greater Yellowstone, twice the number in 1990 and a figure fast approaching the total population of Montana.

 

In 1990, the total population of counties comprising Greater Yellowstone was around 427,000 people (almost equal to the then entire population of Wyoming). The GYC Blueprint, based on the best demographic insight at the time, calculated a population rise in Greater Yellowstone of about 75,000 people—to roughly half a million— by the year 2010.

In fact, Glick notes, the population surged by a whopping 170,000 (100,000 more than anticipated) during that period, with another 25,000 added in just the past five years.  Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, including Big Sky, are leading the surge in total growth numbers and at some trailheads it has lead to conflicts between different kinds of user groups (hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, esquestrians).

07334NPS PhotoIf the documented regional growth rate continues (and most consider the estimate conservative), another 230,000 people will be added to Greater Yellowstone communities and landscapes 20 years down the road.   By 2030, there will be an estimated 830,000 local residents in Greater Yellowstone, twice the number in 1990 and a figure fast approaching the total population of Montana.

Truly daunting the figure doesn’t include rising numbers of tourists—already well in excess of three million in Yellowstone Park alone— who, in addition to trampling resources, are imposing enormous demands on existing infrastructure and bringing escalating costs of services.

Some subscribe to the mantra that more is better, that all growth is good.  But is it?  Is Bozeman becoming a more charming community as it begins to emulate the look and feel of Boulder, Colorado?  Will quality of life be as good in another generation as the total wall of suburbia stretches from the eastern edge of Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch all the way to Bozeman’s city limits?  What are we giving up?  What are we mindlessly giving away? Are our elected officials responding courageously to the challenge before us?

We live in a new era, Glick says, in which the very qualities that made our communities and the Greater Yellowstone region special and attractive—their quaint lack of pretention—are the very things that are most under siege.

“What we didn’t adequately comprehend is that this economic transition away from traditional resource extraction industries would bring with it a whole new set of environmental challenges—some of them like industrial strength outdoor recreation and land development that have significant permanent downsides,” Glick admits.

In retrospect, he wishes the Blueprint had anticipated 21st century New West issues such as economic disparity, exponential growth in outdoor-recreation impacts, and surging development at the wildland-urban interface, harming wildlife and threatening to break the bank with wildfire suppression costs.

And then, Glick added, there’s the “new” issue compounding impacts of the above-mentioned challenges. “Oh yes, climate change,” he said. “It is a profound example of why we should be constantly striving to reduce human stressors on our wildlands and wildlife, not constantly pressing to see how much more weight we can place on the camel’s back.”

 

Meanwhile, a small group of kayakers and packrafters headquartered in Jackson Hole have enlisted the help of Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming—who has one of the most anti-environmental voting records on Capitol Hill—to carry a bill that seeks to overturn Yellowstone’s historic ban on river paddling.

 

Glick points to federal agencies dispersing recreation out of crowded frontcountry and encouraging use of  “underutilized backcountry”—actually rich wildlife habitat— but with no real scientific grasp of consequences.  Mountain biking, for example, is so new that its impacts have not been wholly gauged, yet there are tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of mountain bike user days being logged when the sport didn’t really exist 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, a small group of kayakers and packrafters headquartered in Jackson Hole have enlisted the help of Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming—who has one of the most anti-environmental voting records on Capitol Hill—to carry a bill that seeks to overturn Yellowstone’s historic ban on river paddling.  The packrafters have targeted the Yellowstone River, the Lamar, the Madison, the Thorofare, the Gardiner, and Soda Butte Creek callous to the publicly-stated concerns of Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk who says overturning the ban advances the best longterm conservation interests of Yellowstone, its wildlife, and sense of solitude in no way.

Although widely opposed by conservationists, scientists, and veteran policy makers—who say the Lummis bill sets a terrible precedent in pandering to a narrow self-interest group—the me-first mentality brazenly exhibited by some packrafters is, in the eyes of many critics, a troubling sign of the times.

“I think most people understand that Yellowstone is different. It’s the world’s first national park,” says Scott Christensen, director of conservation at the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Through a lot of hard work over decades and decades, Yellowstone has all of its native wildlife and is arguably the wildest and most sensitive place in the Lower 48. Yellowstone is what it is today because very thoughtful people have worked hard to shield it from the mentality that every activity should be allowed in every place at any time. If Congress sets the precedent of piercing that shield, Yellowstone loses some of its magic and the park will be at risk from proposals much worse than packrafting.”

Once uses are established—uses later discovered to be harmful—it is incredibly difficult, Glick notes, to rein them in.  Look at what happened with the snowmobile controversy in Yellowstone.   “If the last 20 years taught us anything, it’s that we need to exercise more self restraint.  Are we?“ he asks.  “The jury is still out.”

GYC intends to organize a major scientific conference at Montana State University later in 2015 or early in 2016 that examines the ecological impacts of outdoor recreation on wildlife and visitor experience.  

“Every year there are more and more people in the backcountry of Greater Yellowstone. There is something like 60,000 skier days on Teton Pass in Jackson Hole each year. That’s more people than a lot of smaller ski resorts accommodate in a year,” Christensen said.

“While many of us love living here for the great access to things like hiking, biking, fishing and skiing, the reality is that with more of us engaging in these activities in more and more places we need to learn about and take into account the impact recreation has on the lands, waters and wildlife of our region. In the next year, the GYC hopes to convene a gathering that focuses on recreation in Greater Yellowstone, particularly on what we know and don’t know from a scientific perspective about the various impacts recreation has on our backyard wilderness. A better understanding of the implications a vibrant and growing outdoor recreation movement has on our sensitive ecosystem will help guide land managers to make sound decisions and hopefully help each of us recognize that we aren’t alone in the woods anymore.”

Editor's Note: Bozeman writer Todd Wilkinson is author of a new forthcoming book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek—An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone”  featuring 150 amazing photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen.  He recently authored the critically-acclaimed “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet” which was selected as the Bozeman Public Library Foundation’s recommended One Book—One Bozeman read for 2013-2014.