The text of the sign isn’t totally visible because a pair of tourists stand in front of it taking a selfie. Before us, a snaking path of brake lights with no end in sight. We have entered Yellowstone National Park.
The next day, a park ranger does his best to mitigate a traffic jam. A 40-foot Winnebago is stuck, its back tires lodged in a ravine after its driver attempted a K-turn on a narrow road near the most popular entrance of the park. At Norris Geyser Basin, the site of a recent death, a young man steps off the boardwalk onto the fragile geothermal surface. He walks right past a red “Danger, Do Not Leave Boardwalk” sign to grab the perfect photo. Across the park, at Grand Prismatic Spring, another young man kneels down on the boardwalk and sticks his hand into the water. My best guess? To see how hot the smoking water really is.
Celebrated as America’s first National Park, Yellowstone covers nearly 3,500 square miles in northwest Wyoming, and attracts upwards of 4 million tourists annually. This week, as our road trip took us through the park, we would join the throngs of tourists exploring its dramatic canyons, lush forests and simmering hot springs for the first time.
But, as our visit came to an end, it wasn’t the “bison jams” or the views of the geysers that left us speechless. Instead, it was one lingering thought: Yellowstone is in trouble.
And it’s not just the experiences that we had that make us say that - the excruciatingly long lines of traffic, the vast distances between sections of the park, the bloodbath that comes with spontaneously trying to find a campsite. Rather, it was the people who really took away from the park’s true purpose. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read these articles here, here and here.)
NPR.org recently asked the question, “Is Yellowstone Being ‘Love to Death’?” From the article:
"I call it the paradox of the cultivated wild. It's paradoxical because we're taking a place and we're saying, 'We want this place to continue to be wild, but in order for it to seem wild, to appear wild, to give people the experience of what the wild in the Northern Rockies is, we've got to do some tinkering, we've got to do some management. We have to have some rules and some boundaries.' And that goes back to the beginning.
The founding of Yellowstone National Park back in 1872 — it was founded originally because it was a great tourist destination for people who wanted to see geysers and canyons. And then gradually we realized that part of the value of this place, part of the importance of this place, was as a great wildlife refuge. So how do you manage the wildlife in a way that ... people can feel safe visiting this place, and yet the wildlife can be to some degree, in some sense, wild? It's very tricky."
But that’s the trouble with Yellowstone. Because of its celebrity, especially on the eve of the National Park Service’s centennial, a visit here goes so far beyond any idea you might have of the wild land Teddy Roosevelt once christened. Rather, entering the park becomes more like visiting a spectacle - one that 4 million other people come to witness, too.
And it’s no fault of the park’s.