I first visited Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in early October 1975, when I was training at the Naval Nuclear Prototype facility that was 50 miles west of Idaho Falls. I qualified there to operate nuclear power plants on submarines.
That first visit was memorable. Almost nothing was open and traffic was sparse to non-existent. I did see my first elk and moose, and also saw my first fly fisherman on the Madison river, while leaving the park on a rainy Sunday. That started a long sequence of park visits over the decades since.
Most visits were late September/early October – after the start of the school year to avoid crowds. And crowd avoidance seemed to be working for most of those years. There is something almost mystical about being in Yellowstone when there are no masses of people nearby.
And yet, as I think back realistically it should have been obvious that even in the early to mid autumn periods, numbers of people were increasing. The last time I was there was in October 2018. Terri and I went on a fishing trip into Yellowstone, and while there were no crowds on the upper Firehole river, it was a bit shocking to see the crowds at Old Faithful Inn. Except for the cold temperature, it could have been a summer day’s crowds.
And now, the National Park Service is reporting on the Memorial Day 2021 – the first post-COVID 19. Yellowstone reported a 50% increase for the holiday period (three day) over the same period in 2019 – 2020 was excluded due to the COVID restrictions. Similar increases were reported at Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). Officials at Rocky Mountain NP and Yosemite NP are bracing for the increasing crowds observed over the last decade and are planning to introduce new reservation systems; that will likely spread to other larger parks. Some parks have even closed their entrance gates.
It appears the many years I had driving up to National Park entrance stations, paying my admission fee, and then going on my way are coming to an end. While necessary I suppose, it sure seems it’s just another example of a loss of the wild places – where spontaneity and solitude are gone, and so-called civilization is ever more intrusive (and that’s recognizing that for years many of the parks have general stores selling tawdry souvenirs and trinkets).
And it’s not just the National Parks.
In Wyoming this year, officials found 21 abandoned campfires over the Memorial Day holiday – campfires that were still hot, with the potential to spread and start forest or wild-land fires.
It’s unfortunate, but the majority – those who will protect and respect what they find – will find restrictions, because there are too many in a minority who are either ignorant of their impacts – or just don’t care.
It’s not a pleasant thought, but there are too many who are no damned good.