And the seasonality makes the crowds even more intense. Fully two-thirds of visitors hit the park in summer months, with nearly a million in July alone. The shoulder months of May, September, and October see virtually all the rest.
Wenk, speaking at the Michelin Movin' On conference in Montreal, cites "competing values" at the park, which amount to resource management – protecting the wildlife and preserving the geological wonders – and accommodating the visitors who come from around the world to admire Yellowstone's natural beauty. With the number of visitors rising, capacity is straining, and Yellowstone needs to find answers to its traffic problems. More visitors also equal more search and rescue missions, more park violations, and more potential disruption to the environment and wildlife.
Visitors show satisfaction regarding the sights and experiences the park offers, but surveys show the top things that didn't meet their expectations were crowds, parking, and traffic. Many parking areas at the more popular sites operate over capacity. The park experiences around 1,200 "animal jams" in a year, with "lines of traffic that back up two to three miles in each direction to see the grizzly bear and the two cubs, or to see a wolf take down an elk."
"This probably does not remind you of a pristine wilderness experience," Wenk says, showing photos of cars packed tightly and humans lined up on foot to view one of the park's geothermal features.
There's no simple solution, though. "We have, as a government agency, limited financial resources," Wenk says. The road system was established in the early 1900s, and the park needs another $800 million just to upgrade roads to current standards. What's more, weather is an issue, limiting the amount of time each year during which to make improvements, and upgrading segments takes several years. People have said they want a mass transportation system in Yellowstone, "but they said they want you to have a mass transportation system for other people," according to Wenk. "They did not want to use that system themselves."
What is Yellowstone to do? Well, they're still figuring that out. The park is currently capturing data and focusing on its goals – which fall under those "competing values" mentioned earlier – while managing limited assets over the next 20 years. "We're new to this," says Wenk. "We're new to looking at it in this way." The park service is developing new resource planning tools and bringing in experts from multiple disciplines to better understand where it can make the most impact on congestion, while maintaining the treasured ecosystem that brings people to the park in the first place.
For now, though, Wenk tells potential visitors, "I hope you get a chance to come to Yellowstone. I hope you get a chance to be stuck in a traffic jam for a little while so you can see some of the great resources we have in the park."