When Yellowstone reopens, let’s see the park differently

What we will find, if we park and walk a ways, is what we came for and what we won’t get on the road.

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Editorials

June 21, 2022 - 2:50 PM

Northeast Entrance Road is shown severely damaged following historic flooding in Yellowstone National Park that forced it to shut down last week in Gardiner, Montana. GETTY IMATES/SAMUEL WILSON/TNS

Floods have shut down Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Loop Road and caused damage in adjacent towns. Portions of the park where the road has washed away may not reopen to vehicles this season. This is grievous news for those planning to visit and for businesses dependent on them, as well as for those who suffered property damage, but miraculously, no one was killed or injured by the flooding. Let’s use this pause to rethink how we visit the park.

As it happens, I was in Yellowstone recently, and although it was rainy, it was business as usual for June, otherwise known as bear jam season. Within a couple of minutes of entering the park, I found a mess of cars and RVs crammed into pull-offs at odd angles and others idling, with passengers rubbernecking precariously for cellphone pics. Frenzied pedestrians, abandoning their vehicles without a thought for those behind them, darted across the road to join the elbowing throngs on the shoulder. National Park Service employees were already on the scene, keeping cars moving and spectators safe, all with tired politeness. After several minutes in traffic, I glimpsed the attraction: a mother bear with cubs, foraging along the tree line. A few miles on, I encountered another bear jam, and another after that.

Bears deserve paparazzi. Though they’re mainly placid creatures, the pulse quickens when one is in sight, reminding us on a neurochemical level that we are strangers to the wilderness. But then, how wild is this Instagrammy version of Yellowstone, really? Sitting behind the wheel for 20 minutes, inhaling exhaust fumes: Is this the wilderness we came to see? Or did we bring the city with us?

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