'Timed entry' system for national parks, including Yellowstone, discussed at Senate hearing

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Posted at 8:09 AM, Jul 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-29 10:09:18-04

How to manage ever-growing crowds at National Parks was the subject of a U.S. Senate hearing in Washington D.C. Wednesday. Discussion at the hearing centered on a plan which is gaining in popularity at parks across the country. It’s called timed entry.

It can limit who gets in a park and when they can enter.

National Park Service Regional Director Michael Reynolds told the Senators on the subcommittee, “Timed entry has spread successfully visitation throughout the day, decreased congestion and reduced queuing at the entrance stations and parking lots.”

It’s being tried in Glacier this summer and not everyone is sold on the plan.

“The fact that the new system was rolled out very late in the game, just a couple of months before the summer crush hit, caused a lot of confusion and frustration,” said Kevin Gartland, CEO of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce.

But Senator Steve Daines, while acknowledging the issue, didn’t find it to be a deal breaker. He said, “Those sound like solvable problems, right? It sounds like just put a stake in the ground quickly so we can make better plans for next year.”

Gartland admitted that timed entry is helping Glacier and even makes access to businesses near park entrances better. But in Yellowstone, with big crowding problems of its own, there’s not as much enthusiasm for the idea.

“I haven’t heard any positive remarks on that,” said Katrina Wiese of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly agrees in part. He says he doesn’t think timed entry is needed yet, but he says its time may be coming, and he adds, that may not be all bad.

“If you got your reservation or your timed entry on a Monday and a Wednesday, well that Tuesday, you’re not coming into the park. You might have otherwise, but you’re not coming into the park. So you’re going to be looking at the raft companies, fly fishing guides,” said Sholly.

He said all of that could be great for the gateway communities who depend on the park to keep local businesses healthy. In Maine, Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider said people like timed entry.

“A visitor who was there came up to me and he said, he had been there a week prior to watch the sunrise and that he said it was a complete mess. He said there were cars everywhere, you know completely over-parked. Cars double-parked, and he said this is so much better with the reservation system,” said Schneider.

Sholly said that before timed entry would come to Yellowstone, limits on parking are likely to be enforced.

He gave an example of a parking lot that could hold 155 vehicles but fills up quickly. He said, “And if there’s not space, drive up here and enjoy the visitor center for a while and come back.”

You can already see that starting to happen in Yellowstone as rangers direct traffic away from filled-up parking lots.

National Park staffing was also an issue discussed briefly. A large white chart, displayed at the hearing, showed how staffing at Yellowstone has not changed in twenty years, stuck at about 350 full-time employees. That was displayed in a bright red line. A solid green section displayed the number of park visits each year.

The steadily rising numbers painted a jagged green mountain of park visitors which Daines compared to the peaks of nearby Grand Teton National Park. It showed that the number of visitors rose by nearly 1.5 million a year since 2000.