We spent nine nights in the Tetons and Yellowstone in September 2016. They are both small relative to the Adirondacks yet handle 2x the visitors. They are managed by the Park Service. Different companies operate hotels, restaurants stores, gas stations, and such in the Park under concession agreements. Some other observations follow and thoughts about what the Adirondacks might usefully copy are the last section.
The Tetons National Park is small, only 330,000 acres, but speculator. The Jackson, WY airport is actually inside the Park so it is incredibly easy to visit. It is about vistas, hiking, fishing, rafting and wildlife spotting. Dogs are only allowed in limited areas. The season is not over yet but we were told it might approach 5 million visitors for 2016. We visited right after Labor Day. There were notable numbers of Asian tourist groups.
Camping is allowed only by reservation at designated sites. You have to register your plans at a back country office. If you plan on staying at campsites A, B and C you have to show up at each site on the designated day. You are not allowed to stop early and camp somewhere because you are tired or it’s raining, snowing and so on. Back country rangers check in on campsites daily.
Wildlife is abundant. Only hunting elk is legal and only under limited circumstances. Roads have many viewing pullouts – signs tell you that you are approaching one.
Bears, especially brown bears, are a danger. Instead of insisting people carry bear canisters, the Park Service installs bear-proof metal food storage bins at every picnic ground and even back country camping locations. They are big enough for two people to fit inside and there is a latch release on the inside. Bear spray is widely available, heavily advertised and can even be rented. Training information about how to use it is all over the place (e.g. do not spray it into the wind). The discourage people from thinking guns will protect them from a bear. They encourage you to make noise when hiking, talk loudly, carry a bell, and go in groups of three or more. The idea is to avoid surprising a bear.
Yellowstone is Just to the North
Yellowstone is 2000 feet higher and a very different ecological environment full of geysers and other hot water features. It is 2.2 million acres, and the surrounding ecosystem adds another 22 million acres. Ownership outside the Park is mixed private, other federal and there are small towns. It was estimated that 5 millions would visit this year.
There is no hunting in the Park, but the the animal herds move outside the Park where hunting is big business. The wildlife of the Park are treasured. Herds of bison, elk and pronghorn antelope. Grizzly and black bears. Moose.
The same rules about camping and bears apply here are they do in the Tetons.
The big thing here is fire. Days before we arrived, the road between the Tetons and Yellowstone was closed due to a forest fire. It opened the morning we wanted pass, then closed abruptly again in the afternoon. Strong winds came up and the fire exploded. Nearby by tourist facilities were evacuated and closed. They do try to protect buildings and infrastructure, but otherwise they let fires burn using gates to close off roads when necessary (there is a whole system of gates). You see recovering burned areas all over the Park with new pine forests of various ages growing up. Fires there serve the same purpose as beaver here, creating open lands for new plant growth in the open sun. You don’t want to be near a forest fire, or downwind from one, but there is no special concern for the forest lost because you see it recovering all over the region. Smoke clouds were as big as our summertime thunderheads. The next day, it snowed 4-6 inches which helped dampen the fire so the road was re-opened as few days later.
Common Features to Both Parks
No one lives in the Park except Park staff and seasonal workers at various hotels, restaurants and campgrounds. These people all live in dormitory style housing. There are public bathrooms all over the area. 95% of people never get more than 500 feet from a road. Some areas are heavily developed to handle crowds – most notably Old Faithful – but most of it is left untouched.
Areas are routinely closed for maintenance, restoration and recovery. July and August are the busiest months of their short season. The visitors there reflected international visitors but not notably diverse American visitors.
Traffic can back up due to two things. Parking lots get full so waiting cars line up, causing roads to choke up. Also wildlife sightings cause visitors to stop and this turns into a crowd rapidly. Staff is dispatched to place temporary ‘wildlife’ signs so people are aware of the cause of the delay and manage the road side areas.
What Might be Helpful to the Adirondacks?
There dominance of car touring to designated places with something to see and appropriate facilities (bathrooms, photo op pull outs, etc) suggested to me the Adirondacks could do a lot more with simple roadside vistas and pull outs. Simple things like a sign saying “pull out ahead gave drivers time to pull safely off the road to enjoy the location. Encouraging activity other than hiking protects the back country.
Since no one lives in the Parks, staff housing has to be provided. It would see like summer staff housing in the Adirondacks would be a way to add more people and thereby improve the visitor experience.
Park Staff (Rangers and Naturalists) were visible and approachable in many locations. There were trained well and able to answer most questions. Visitor centers have staffed desks with people who knew the most recent road conditions, closures, etc. In Yellowstone there was a Park newspaper. The point is we found information available all over the place from staff in many locations. Here in the Adirondacks, information is harder to find unless you know where to look.
The story of the Parks and their surrounding area is quite similar to the Adirondacks. The core Park areas were easy for almost everyone to support from the beginning. It was only when the Park boundaries were expanded into neighboring ranch land next to the Tetons that locals began to object. The land was purchased in a hidden manner (like the TNC purchase of Finch) and later it became part of the Park by Presidential Executive Order. In the case of Yellowstone, the Park has not grown in acres, but the Yellowstone ecosystem designation was expanded to some 22.2 million acres surrounding the 2.2 million acre Park and this was a root of classic conservation conflicts there. The 22.2 million acres includes small towns and tracts of private ranch land plus other Federal land. The Adirondack Forest Preserve included lots of scattered tracts while the two western Parks are in contiguous blocks of land. Someday, people will come to see that the Adirondack ecosystem will be better served if our Forest Preserve was consolidated into larger blocks and the smaller disassociated scattered parcels were sold to fund contiguous land.
The Jackson airport had a new terminal with 9 gates and is served by a couple of airlines. It makes visiting very easy. We have the Saranac Lake Airport in the Park but it is poorly served by Cape Air to the point that mostly it exists for private aircraft of the uber rich. However we also have Plattsburgh airport which is about to open its expanded terminal with 9 gates plus be able to handle international arrivals and departures. There is potential to use it as a major entry point for air travel to our Park.
Jim and Dave you’ve got some great points and ideas to think about seriously. One is an idea I proposed to then DEC Commissioner Martens is that I was willing to pursue a :big deal” realignment of ownerships. Some private owners still have unique ecologically significant landscapes and much of the smaller isolated forest preserve tracts adjacent to or inholdings could be traded/sold . Its very likely a significant legal battle with some groups would ensue since their goal is preserve the entire park, except where they live, but strong leadership and strong consensus and possibly amend the constitution would enable such a long term view that having private well managed landscapes can be an asset for the public lands in the Park and its residents.
Hi Eric, sorry for the long delay in my reply. Previously, I have talked to a number of people about a deal along the lines you propose. There are many benefits to gain from it. I think if you organized the work to show parcel-for-parcel level detail in the proposal, you’d have a shot at it. I was trying to come up with some type of mechanism that would enable this, and that was a non-starter for many people. But a list of tracts might be workable. Keep me posted.