Give parks a break, discover other areas of Montana

By: 
Dwight Harriman
Yellowstone Newspapers

It’s not unusual for Yellowstone National Park summer visitors to circle many times around a parking lot at a major attraction until they can find a parking spot.
But on a recent July trip to Yellowstone, parking at the popular Grand Prismatic Spring was so heavy one had to wait in a long line of cars just to get to the parking lot, never mind circling once there.
The anecdote is emblematic of the crowding struggles Yellowstone and many other national parks across the country are facing.
Every year Yellowstone Park sets records for visitation. A banner year was 2016, when a record 4,257,177 people visited, representing a 3.89 percent increase over 2015’s numbers and — get this — a 21.17 percent increase over 2014. That’s a pretty rapid rise and a stunning one, too, considering that — here’s another statistic — back in 1904 there were just 13,727 Yellowstone visitors.
The anecdotes about crowding and its effect on visitors just got official confirmation with Yellowstone Park’s recent release of two studies. One surveyed visitors and their experiences and another took a look at traffic. Among key findings in the studies:
• More than half of visitors think there are too many people in the park.
• Two-thirds of visitors think parking is a problem, and a majority think traffic and vehicle congestion are problems.
• In the middle of summer, traffic volume is about 30 percent more than roads and parking lots can safely bear.
• Demand for roads and parking will probably exceed capacity between 2021 and 2023.
Most visitors in the survey saw as a solution voluntary public transportation and more parking options. In a news release about the studies, the park outlines other possibilities as well: timed-entry systems and reservations.
We hope it doesn’t come to that “R” word — reservations for Yellowstone, Glacier and other national parks. But it could be that in the not-too-distant future we’ll have to decide between unlimited visitor access and saving our parks. Time will tell.
In the meantime, national park visitors can do a couple things on their own to help. One is to visit the parks in non-peak periods. That will give the park roads, parking and your own jangled nerves some relief. 
The other is to remember national facilities don’t have to be the only park destination. Montana has a tremendous array of state parks — from Bannack State Park in western Montana, to Ackley Lake State Park near Lewistown to Makoshika State Park outside of Glendive — that are more than worthy of our attention.
To paraphrase those summer road construction signs about watching out for workers, give your national parks a break.

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