1. You will not be the only person here.
Yellowstone’s visitation surpassed 4 million visitors for the first time in 2015. For the past decade, annual visitation increased by 10%, but last year it jumped up to 17%. (The average increase for National Parks is 1.8% annually). This year, with it being the Centennial of the Park Service, Yellowstone prepared — as much as they could — by overhiring 5%. Already though, the numbers this year have caused alarm. April and May alone saw a 30% increase in visitation, with a 48% increase in tour buses alone. The West Yellowstone entrance sees twice as many folk as the other entrances combined, causing the 11-mile trek from West Yellowstone to Madison to take two hours at the season’s height. This season, the Park is expecting at minimum 5 million visitors. That’s quite the leap from last year. You will not have Old Faithful to yourself.
2. Yellowstone is not a park, it is not an island, it is an ecosystem.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem expands over 22 million acres — from Bozeman to Jackson — west into Idaho and east over to Cody. It’s one of the last remaining relatively intact, temperate ecosystems on earth. It is the largest piece of contiguous public wild lands in the lower 48.
And it is no secret that the whole world loves it. But something has to change. With so many visitors entering the park, rushing through, Yellowstone is at risk of being loved to death. Millions of footprints each season make an impact — on the wildlife habitat, on the air quality, on the noise levels, not to mention visitor’s experiences. When John Muir visited Yellowstone in its early days, he worried tourists were “rushing through” in the five day average it took them to drive the park. Today, tourists complete the same path in 5 hours. Parks were set aside for the enjoyment of the people, as a place to step off the hamster wheel, not as an extended, prettier version to participate in the rate race of society. In our hurriedness and sheer numbers, we are destroying the peace that comes with such a vast, wild, raw, untouched place.
3. Yellowstone paves the way for conservation and the future of it lies in the park’s next decisions.
As the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone is more than a park. It resembles humans’ relationship with the land, with the wild. As places like this become less common and smaller, eyes from the world over are on Yellowstone, as they always have been, to watch how they manage the changes.
Activities within the park have huge impacts on areas next to it, far beyond its borders. What happens here matters. The headwaters for the Columbia, Colorado, Missouri and Mississippi rivers start here. Can we hope to step up and find a way to not overflow the park’s human capacity? Can we still coexist with a place where nature still takes its course without human intervention? How much will we protect? How hard are we willing to fight for it?
4. This land is your land.
Yellowstone Park cover 2.2 million acres. There are features here that exist nowhere else on earth, every species that existed here before Europeans arrived still do, including 35 species of mosquitoes. We brought wolves back. Grizzlies still roam the hills here. And this is just one park in the vast lands of the states. These lands set us apart from the rest of the world because we still have them, and so many of them. Public lands are one of the most invaluable things you inherit as an American citizen. What does that mean to you? Moreover, what would those wild eyes within those wild animals, those looks of wildness, that inability to be divorced from the wild — what would your life be, what would all of our lives be, without it?
We are all stewards of Yellowstone. We all have a choice in the future of our national parks, of our public lands, of our relationship with wildness, with what we cannot control.
5. Understand the risks. And don’t pet the bison.
You’re more likely to be struck by lightning, a car accident, or a vending machine than by a bear. You’re even more likely to be attacked by a moose than a bear. Even so, please don’t feed the bears, or any wildlife. It always ends poorly for them, and sometimes, very poorly for an innocent human. Sometimes Yellowstone seems like one giant zoo of watching Darwinism play out in the flesh. You’ll witness parents placing their kids on top of bison for that perfect photo opp, people petting bison, people putting bison in their cars, getting charged by elk, running towards bears, taking one step too close to thermal features, and on and on and on. That doesn’t mean you should do it too. Read that wildlife safety handout the rangers pass you from the entrance booths. It will snow in January, it will snow in July. Come prepared with layers. There will be bison and bear jams miles long. Pack water and snacks. But don’t feed them to onlooking critters. Carry bear spray, because there are grizzlies roaming the woods. Don’t throw your trash on the ground. And please, do not toss your cigarettes out your car window. When you enter the park, take part in leaving it a bit better than you found it. Respect and revel in the ground you walk on. If you venture into Yellowstone, slow down and find your way off the beaten path. Tread lightly, and most importantly, pack your patience.