Yellowstone National Park is the United States’ second most popular national park, with more than four million visitors a year – up a whopping 35 percent over the last decade alone.
Squeezed between record demand and a multi-billion dollar budget backlog, the National Park Service is facing some tough questions over Yellowstone’s sustainability. Some are even muttering if visitation continues to skyrocket, a daily cap on vehicles entering the park might one day be necessary.
Crowds of people surround the Old Faithful geyser on a summer day during tourist season at Yellowstone National Park
Crowds have surged at many US National Parks, especially Yellowstone © VCNW / Getty Images
In response, Yellowstone National Park and its main concessionaire, Yellowstone National Park Lodges, have made great strides in recent years to steer Yellowstone’s mass visitation towards a sustainable footing. You can do your bit by supporting the following projects. You might even save a few bucks in the process.
Food & Drink
Feeding Yellowstone’s visitors is a mammoth task that creates mammoth waste. The park’s concessionaire is doing its part by recycling or composting more than 50 percent of its refuse and making its restaurants Styrofoam-free. It also works with Montana’s Western Sustainability Exchange to link with local farms and food producers to supply the majority of its restaurant food. Eat, drink and be sustainable with the following programs:
A selection of pint glasses with images from Yellowstone National Park are filled with beer at a bar
Local craft beer bottles are highly recyclable at Yellowstone National Park © Yellowstone National Park Lodges
Drink local craft beer: Let’s start with the easy one. All empty beer bottles can be recycled in park bins, but Montana’s Bayern Brewery has upped the ante by refilling its beer bottles, along with those of Red Lodge’s Bent Nail IPA and Grand Teton Brewing’s Old Faithful Pale Ale. Drop these bottles in the six packs placed in the Old Faithful Inn, Canyon bar and Lake Lodge bar and you can go one better than recycling.
Reusable coffee cups: Buy a cool Yellowstone coffee cup for $1.95 and you get a quarter off any coffee (fair-trade available) in the park’s restaurants and cafeterias. After a week you’ve earned your money back and saved half a dozen paper cups.
Compostable cutlery: Plastic knives and forks in the park’s restaurants are biodegradable, as are the to-go boxes, napkins and cups, so put them in the compost rather than the trash.
Drink wine: Another easy one. Several bars in the park now offer wine on tap; a more sustainable way of packaging and transporting wine. But no, you can’t order it by the pint…
Eat local: More than 60 percent of the park menu items are now sourced from local or organic sources, from organic Montana lamb and grass-fed bison and locally distilled Wyoming spirits. Locally sourced produce means a smaller transport footprint, fresher food and healthier communities. The green leaf on park menus highlights sustainable options and details the local producers. Vegetarian options like the Montana-sourced goat cheese salad boast the lowest carbon footprint.
The War on Waste: Recycling and Resources
Record numbers of visitors means record resources consumed (including more than 1700 rolls of toilet paper per day alone!). Yellowstone Park Lodges projects range from the big (the new Canyon Lodges are LEED certified) to the tiny (cutting back on plastic wrapping on its cute bear-shaped soaps), but everything helps. Meanwhile, light fixtures in the park are slowly being replaced with low-wattage fixtures that direct light only downward, saving energy and boosting dark-sky views.
Tourists walk through the rich, rustic wooden great room at The Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park
There’s lots of ways to make your stay in Yellowstone accommodations more sustainable © Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images
Softer footprint: Save yourself $5 on your park accommodation room rates by foregoing housekeeping when staying for more than one night. Around half of guests currently participate, saving 300,000 gallons of water and 150,000 kWh of electricity annually.
Less waste: Several park restaurants offer smaller portions for a reduced fee in an effort to minimize waste. Straws are only supplied on request.
Bring your own water bottle: Yellowstone National Park Lodges no longer sells disposable plastic bottles of water (though Yellowstone General Stores do), even after the Trump administration overruled the park ban on one-use plastic bottles. Dozens of water stations have been set up around park infrastructure, so filling up is easy. If you have to buy water, then easy-to-recycle canned water is available.
Recycle bear spray and propane canisters: Anyone hiking in Yellowstone’s backcountry should carry bear spray, but most are never deployed and you can’t take them on a flight back home. The solution: take your bear spray to any backcountry office or to Bozeman airport. Drop your propane gas canisters at any park campground.
Shorter Showers: If every Yellowstone guest limited their shower to five minutes, the park would save 3 million gallons of water annually. This is important because climate change is already having a noticeable long-term effect on snowpack levels in Yellowstone, with 30 fewer days with snow on the ground per year, and 60 to 80 fewer days below freezing, compared to 50 years ago.
Electric vehicles: Don’t be intimidated by those Wyoming pickups, bring your electric car. There are now charging stations at Mammoth, Canyon, Old Faithful Lodge, Lake Hotel, Grant Village (under construction) and the Yellowstone Forever store in Gardiner, plus the gateway communities of West Yellowstone, Jackson and Cody, so you are never far from a charge.
Senior male fishing on the Firehole River in Yellowstone, with a pair of bison fording the water in the background.
Catch the right fish in Yellowstone and it might get you a discount on your meal © Allison Achauer / Getty Images
Bonus: Go fishing
Being a sustainable park visitor doesn’t mean missing out on any Yellowstone fun. In case even these ideas sound like too much hard work, just to go fishing. Invasive species are a serious problem in Yellowstone, and none are worse than lake trout, which have decimated the endemic cutthroat trout since being introduced illegally in the 1980s.
If you do catch a lake trout, gut it and take it on ice to the Lake Yellowstone Dining Room or Lake Lodge Cafeteria and they will cook it for you and serve it with sides for a discounted meal. Every lake trout caught saves 45 native cutthroat trout a year. Never did doing the right thing taste and feel so good.
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