Sustainability Initiatives at Yellowstone – Over the course of a recent cross-country drive, I briefly visited Yellowstone National Park for the first time. A day and a half hardly allows one to do justice to exploring the natural wonders of the world’s first national park.
It did, however, offer a chance to view and learn about some of the ways that Yellowstone, and the way in which the park is being managed, are evolving with greater understanding of the natural environment and higher prioritization of sustainability.
Sustainability Initiatives at Yellowstone
One of these was in respect to forest fire management. Having watched the television coverage of the massive 1988 fires that burned 36 percent of its forests—a result in part of decades of too-successful fire suppression efforts—Yellowstone for me has long been closely associated with changing approaches to how forest fires are managed.
Indeed, the huge Rim fire raging around Yosemite National Park (which was only about 15 percent contained when I reached Yellowstone) was an eerie coincidence marking the 25th anniversary of the Yellowstone fires, sparking anew national debate about how most effectively to manage the factors at play (as discussed in a recent post).
One thing that impressed me was some of the ways in which the National Park Service has chosen to incorporate the legacy and lessons of the Yellowstone fires into the park’s educational experience. For example, while scars from the earlier fires are starkly evident, so are the large areas throughout the park where rapidly growing young trees have thickly sprouted up.
The National Park Service has chosen to draw attention to these with signs installed prominently along the roads next to many of these new forests, pointing out that the trees were “naturally reseeded” as an outcome of the 1988 fires. Additionally, exhibits on the fire have been installed in locations throughout the park.
Environmental Consequences of Forest Fires
There is also a good chance that even casual visitors to Yellowstone today will find sustainability a prominent theme of their experience. Extensive information about sustainability practices at Yellowstone is featured on the official park website. Rooms in Yellowstone’s nine guest lodges, which are managed by an outside company called Xanterra Parks and Resorts, feature in their visitor information packets statistics both from Xanterra and the Yellowstone Park Foundation about sustainable practices they are implementing at the park.
The electronic survey I received after my stay to provide comments included several questions about how well the hotels and restaurants presented information on sustainable practices and offered sustainable menu options.
Xanterra’s website features an extensive list of environmental sustainability achievements and specific actions taken to accomplish these, including noteworthy reductions in electricity and water consumption and solid waste (for example, diverting 73 percent of solid waste through composting, recycling, and reuse), along with an overall greenhouse gas reduction level of 5.4 percent since the baseline year of 2000.
These activities have also extended into the restaurant and retail experience. For example, the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room was certified as a 3-star “green restaurant” by Green Restaurant Association in 2011, making it the first restaurant in Wyoming and one of only 71 nationwide to receive this designation.
Additionally, a new green retail store called For Future Generations-Yellowstone Gifts has implemented a sustainability scorecard to provide visitors information on the environmental impact of the retail products for sale.
As my visits to national parks normally involve backcountry hikes following leave no trace practices, it was encouraging to see a strong emphasis on sustainability within the broader park visitors’ experience that until now I have rarely seen at hotels and lodges even within national parks.
There is certainly more that can be done (for example, in developing ways to reduce the traffic congestion along Yellowstone’s busy roads and the significant emissions this generates).
Maybe just as important is whether the information being presented to park visitors is shaping their own views and practices, both during their visit to the park and in their everyday lives. The national park system has long been one of the most important leaders and resources in educating people about the environment.
In this regard, they have great potential to serve as beacons for sustainability practices while traveling as well; finding ways to measure whether the efforts at Yellowstone and other national parks are shaping and changing people’s behavior after they return home would offer useful insights.