Only a few weeks into his tenure, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cameron Sholly has traveled from Cody to Jackson to West Yellowstone and recently to Big Sky to learn what issues Yellowstone’s gateway communities hope to address.

Park talks

YNP’s Cameron Sholly tackles the issues with Big Sky leaders
“We’re the ones that killed all the wolves, we’re the ones that dropped the bison numbers down in the last century. The recovery of those species… really are individually some of the most incredible conservation success stories in the world.”—Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cameron Sholly.

With just less than a month under his belt as the newly appointed superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Cameron “Cam” Sholly was able to shave out some time to pay a visit to Big Sky on Nov. 15.     

Sholly, who comes to Yellowstone from Omaha, where he served as the Midwest regional director for the National Parks Service, is by no means new to the community. Before delving into the hot topics, he explained his connections to Big Sky and the Yellowstone region. 

Sholly first skied Big Sky Resort in 1985, when he was a high school junior in Gardiner, Mont. After graduating high school he joined the military, but found himself back in Big Sky in 1989 working for conference services at the Huntley Lodge when Taylor Middleton—now Big Sky Resort’s general manager—was the head of sales and marketing. 

“I kind of ski bummed and had a great time,” Sholly recalled, noting that once the resort closed he painted the walls of the hotel.

He found his way to Yellowstone in 1990 where he worked and lived in the furthest southeast part of the park, known as the Thorofare, “the furthest place from a road in the lower 48,” said Sholly. 

“That was back when life was simple, less complicated,” he added.

Then it was on to school at Montana State University, where he eventually joined the Army Reserve Unit in Bozeman, soon being brought back to active duty in the fall of 1990 and deployed to Desert Storm.

But still, he managed to come back through Yellowstone, moving to Yosemite and crisscrossing the country working for the National Parks Service. He said he would come back to Big Sky and Yellowstone country every year, looking forward to his visits with is father, who lives here part-time, golfing and fishing in the summer.

“So this place is near and dear to my heart,” said Sholly. “It’s pretty amazing what this place looks like compared to 30 years ago, in a good way… I look forward to figuring out how I can help complement some of the activities you’re doing here, in finding the balance and understanding how the decisions we make in Yellowstone affect our gateways.”

 

The gateway community connection 

Sholly spent his first weeks meeting with the governors of Wyoming and Montana, other gateway communities of the park, and has testified in front of Sen. Steve Daines on gateway community relations and the impacts of increased visitation. He’s also spending plenty of time with the teams in YNP to learn firsthand what’s been going on there.

“There’s no shortage of challenges… there’s a lot of politics, but it’s been really great to have some informal dialogue with groups like this,” Sholly said speaking to a room of Big Sky’s business owners and community leaders. “About contemporary challenges and viewpoints of the things you’re seeing, and how the park service can be as responsive as possible to work on these goals of mutual interest.”

The nice thing, Sholly said of Yellowstone, is that people care about it. 

“It’s a spectacular place, and we have to collaborate. Our commitment to civic engagement is based largely on the principal that in order to succeed we have got to manage in concert with one another, we can’t do things alone. Partnering is really one of our most important institutional responsibilities, and that’s something I take very, very seriously.”

 

Visitor use and its impacts on natural resources 

Something that’s quickly come to the forefront in Sholly’s short tenure is visitor use management. In 2016 more than 4.1 million visitors passed through Yellowstone’s gates. The park is busier than it’s ever been.

“And there are impacts to that, on our resources, on our staffing, our operations, on our visitors, and visitor experience, and those are things that have to be managed very carefully,” said Sholly, who said he’s heard more than once, concerns and questions about the park considering visitation caps and reservation systems. “At this point, the answer to that is ‘no.’”

But thinking to the future, Sholly noted that if visitation jumped from around four million to six or eight million visitors a year, “I think we’d be having a very different type of conversation.” 

While speaking with other gateway communities, Sholly has heard a number of differing opinions on what to do about ballooning visitation. “But those are important conversations to have, and to figure out where commonalities exist,” he said.

How to quantify the impacts to the park’s natural resources due to increased visitation was another challenge Sholly addressed. The park measures traffic jam delays, bathroom waits and how much trash is being generated, Sholly said, commending the park team for keeping visitor satisfaction high.

“There are clearly impacts, and it’s up to us to understand where those impacts are occurring without damaging resources that over a long period of time, have a cumulative, maybe permanent impact, and can prevent future generations from coming in and enjoying that park and its resources,” he said.

Sholly said it’s a high priority of his to determine where those thresholds are, and then create strategies to deal with the issue. “I consider us right now in kind of a phase one, information gathering state,” he said, utilizing 2016 visitor use and 2017 transportation studies, to move forward with site specific plans to keep park patrons happy and the environment pristine as visitation continues to rise.

That brought Sholly back to the visitation cap concept, “I actually don’t know how you’d get there, in Yellowstone. That park is 2.2 million acres, bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together, five entrances. It would be a very difficult thing to implement.”

Keeping an open mind, Sholly did see some opportunity in site-specific visitation management, but said that the better solution might be to look at current configurations and find ways to optimize them—from adding one-ways to elevated boardwalks. 

 

To market or not to market? 

Big Sky Transportation District Manager David Kack continued the visitation-resource balance conversation, wondering, “Would it be viewed as a bad thing if visitation went down? If we tamped down on the marketing, and a few less people showed up?”

Light chuckling came from Kack’s fellow crowd members. Sholly commended the success of the centennial “Find Your Park” campaign, noting that park visitation is in fact down three percent since the peak, which occurred in 2016. He said he’ll be interested to see if that slight decline continues in the coming years.

But, “It’s hard to have the conversation about how we spent $4 million hiring one of the most prominent marketing firms in the world, for ‘Find Your Park,’ and marketed our parks globally… we grew park visitation by 50 million, and now we’re in a panic that we have too much visitation,” said Sholly of the entire national park system. “So, I don’t think less visitation is bad.”

And for the first time that Sholly has seen, after hearing for years that gateway communities want more business, they’re now seeing the challenges of having too many visitors. 

“I don’t know what that threshold looks like ultimately,” said Sholly, hypothesizing that if Yellowstone reaches five million visitors annually, the impact would likely be different for West Yellowstone than Big Sky. “But I caveat that by saying that it is a very important thing for us to continue to make our parks relevant to the next generation of supporters.” 

Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of Visit Big Sky, the organization that sponsored Sholly’s visit, offered up another way to look at the situation: “There’s not a lot of advertising availability within the park… how could we do a better job moving those people that are coming to the park through our greater regional tourism ecosystem?”

Sholly admitted it’s still a bit early in his tenure to have a solid answer to that question, but he’s open-minded and willing to sit at the table to figure out a role the park can play.

 

Global warming’s effects on Yellowstone

Big Sky Resort Tax District Board Member Buz Davis veered the conversation along a new path, citing a recent New York Times article that addressed how the Yellowstone ecosystem is changing, and will continue to change due to the rise of Earth’s temperature. Davis requested that Sholly comment on the story, seeing it as an opportunity for the new superintendent to provide input on what Yellowstone is doing about the issue. 

Though it had been published just that morning, Sholly had read the article. He said, “First and foremost, let me preface… there is no question that in the future we have an immense number of threats in front of us. Whether it’s visitor use, whether it’s the impact of climate change on the Yellowstone and greater Yellowstone ecosystem, it’s something that’s very important for us to continue to understand what those impacts are and how those impacts correlate to how we manage and how we better predict where that change is occurring, and the actions we need to take to mitigate, adapt, or even prevent some of those things from happening.”

He continued, “There needs to be some balance on reflecting what the condition of the Yellowstone ecosystem is right now… overall that ecosystem is in better balance probably than it has been in the last 150 years.”

Sholly cited successful efforts in restoring wildlife habitats, from wolves to bison, beavers and grizzlies, and so on. 

“The reason these things were out of balance was because of us,” said Sholly. “We’re the ones that killed all the wolves, we’re the ones that dropped the bison numbers down in the last century. The recovery of those species… really are individually some of the most incredible conservation success stories in the world.”

And the challenges continue, said Sholly: “We have a lot of work to do, from native species, to white bark pine, whether it’s changes in temperature and how it is affecting snowmelt… there is no question that’s happening and there’s no question we have to work together using the best available science and information to decide what our strategies need to be moving forward.”

Describing the national park system as laboratories in some ways, Sholly said the parks can play a critical role in adding to scientific knowledge. 

“Because they’re protected we can evaluate those changes, and what they’ve been over time,” he explained. “And they’re great places for education, getting people to understand what those challenges are, what does climate change mean, what effects climate change has on a place like Yellowstone.”

The parks, Sholly thinks, can also set a sustainability standard, showcasing models of the best ethical behaviors in relationship to what needs to be done on a global scale to combat the impacts of climate change—from managing vehicle fleets to recycling.

BY JOLENE PALMER

reporter@lonepeaklookout.com

 

With just less than a month under his belt as the newly appointed superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Cameron “Cam” Sholly was able to shave out some time to pay a visit to Big Sky on Nov. 15.     

Sholly, who comes to Yellowstone from Omaha, where he served as the Midwest regional director for the National Parks Service, is by no means new to the community. Before delving into the hot topics, he explained his connections to Big Sky and the Yellowstone region. 

Sholly first skied Big Sky Resort in 1985, when he was a high school junior in Gardiner, Mont. After graduating high school he joined the military, but found himself back in Big Sky in 1989 working for conference services at the Huntley Lodge when Taylor Middleton—now Big Sky Resort’s general manager—was the head of sales and marketing. 

“I kind of ski bummed and had a great time,” Sholly recalled, noting that once the resort closed he painted the walls of the hotel.

He found his way to Yellowstone in 1990 where he worked and lived in the furthest southeast part of the park, known as the Thorofare, “the furthest place from a road in the lower 48,” said Sholly. 

“That was back when life was simple, less complicated,” he added.

Then it was on to school at Montana State University, where he eventually joined the Army Reserve Unit in Bozeman, soon being brought back to active duty in the fall of 1990 and deployed to Desert Storm.

But still, he managed to come back through Yellowstone, moving to Yosemite and crisscrossing the country working for the National Parks Service. He said he would come back to Big Sky and Yellowstone country every year, looking forward to his visits with is father, who lives here part-time, golfing and fishing in the summer.

“So this place is near and dear to my heart,” said Sholly. “It’s pretty amazing what this place looks like compared to 30 years ago, in a good way… I look forward to figuring out how I can help complement some of the activities you’re doing here, in finding the balance and understanding how the decisions we make in Yellowstone affect our gateways.”

 

The gateway community connection 

Sholly spent his first weeks meeting with the governors of Wyoming and Montana, other gateway communities of the park, and has testified in front of Sen. Steve Daines on gateway community relations and the impacts of increased visitation. He’s also spending plenty of time with the teams in YNP to learn firsthand what’s been going on there.

“There’s no shortage of challenges… there’s a lot of politics, but it’s been really great to have some informal dialogue with groups like this,” Sholly said speaking to a room of Big Sky’s business owners and community leaders. “About contemporary challenges and viewpoints of the things you’re seeing, and how the park service can be as responsive as possible to work on these goals of mutual interest.”

The nice thing, Sholly said of Yellowstone, is that people care about it. 

“It’s a spectacular place, and we have to collaborate. Our commitment to civic engagement is based largely on the principal that in order to succeed we have got to manage in concert with one another, we can’t do things alone. Partnering is really one of our most important institutional responsibilities, and that’s something I take very, very seriously.”

 

Visitor use and its impacts on natural resources 

Something that’s quickly come to the forefront in Sholly’s short tenure is visitor use management. In 2016 more than 4.1 million visitors passed through Yellowstone’s gates. The park is busier than it’s ever been.

“And there are impacts to that, on our resources, on our staffing, our operations, on our visitors, and visitor experience, and those are things that have to be managed very carefully,” said Sholly, who said he’s heard more than once, concerns and questions about the park considering visitation caps and reservation systems. “At this point, the answer to that is ‘no.’”

But thinking to the future, Sholly noted that if visitation jumped from around four million to six or eight million visitors a year, “I think we’d be having a very different type of conversation.” 

While speaking with other gateway communities, Sholly has heard a number of differing opinions on what to do about ballooning visitation. “But those are important conversations to have, and to figure out where commonalities exist,” he said.

How to quantify the impacts to the park’s natural resources due to increased visitation was another challenge Sholly addressed. The park measures traffic jam delays, bathroom waits and how much trash is being generated, Sholly said, commending the park team for keeping visitor satisfaction high.

“There are clearly impacts, and it’s up to us to understand where those impacts are occurring without damaging resources that over a long period of time, have a cumulative, maybe permanent impact, and can prevent future generations from coming in and enjoying that park and its resources,” he said.

Sholly said it’s a high priority of his to determine where those thresholds are, and then create strategies to deal with the issue. “I consider us right now in kind of a phase one, information gathering state,” he said, utilizing 2016 visitor use and 2017 transportation studies, to move forward with site specific plans to keep park patrons happy and the environment pristine as visitation continues to rise.

That brought Sholly back to the visitation cap concept, “I actually don’t know how you’d get there, in Yellowstone. That park is 2.2 million acres, bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together, five entrances. It would be a very difficult thing to implement.”

Keeping an open mind, Sholly did see some opportunity in site-specific visitation management, but said that the better solution might be to look at current configurations and find ways to optimize them—from adding one-ways to elevated boardwalks. 

 

To market or not to market? 

Big Sky Transportation District Manager David Kack continued the visitation-resource balance conversation, wondering, “Would it be viewed as a bad thing if visitation went down? If we tamped down on the marketing, and a few less people showed up?”

Light chuckling came from Kack’s fellow crowd members. Sholly commended the success of the centennial “Find Your Park” campaign, noting that park visitation is in fact down three percent since the peak, which occurred in 2016. He said he’ll be interested to see if that slight decline continues in the coming years.

But, “It’s hard to have the conversation about how we spent $4 million hiring one of the most prominent marketing firms in the world, for ‘Find Your Park,’ and marketed our parks globally… we grew park visitation by 50 million, and now we’re in a panic that we have too much visitation,” said Sholly of the entire national park system. “So, I don’t think less visitation is bad.”

And for the first time that Sholly has seen, after hearing for years that gateway communities want more business, they’re now seeing the challenges of having too many visitors. 

“I don’t know what that threshold looks like ultimately,” said Sholly, hypothesizing that if Yellowstone reaches five million visitors annually, the impact would likely be different for West Yellowstone than Big Sky. “But I caveat that by saying that it is a very important thing for us to continue to make our parks relevant to the next generation of supporters.” 

Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of Visit Big Sky, the organization that sponsored Sholly’s visit, offered up another way to look at the situation: “There’s not a lot of advertising availability within the park… how could we do a better job moving those people that are coming to the park through our greater regional tourism ecosystem?”

Sholly admitted it’s still a bit early in his tenure to have a solid answer to that question, but he’s open-minded and willing to sit at the table to figure out a role the park can play.

 

Global warming’s effects on Yellowstone

Big Sky Resort Tax District Board Member Buz Davis veered the conversation along a new path, citing a recent New York Times article that addressed how the Yellowstone ecosystem is changing, and will continue to change due to the rise of Earth’s temperature. Davis requested that Sholly comment on the story, seeing it as an opportunity for the new superintendent to provide input on what Yellowstone is doing about the issue. 

Though it had been published just that morning, Sholly had read the article. He said, “First and foremost, let me preface… there is no question that in the future we have an immense number of threats in front of us. Whether it’s visitor use, whether it’s the impact of climate change on the Yellowstone and greater Yellowstone ecosystem, it’s something that’s very important for us to continue to understand what those impacts are and how those impacts correlate to how we manage and how we better predict where that change is occurring, and the actions we need to take to mitigate, adapt, or even prevent some of those things from happening.”

He continued, “There needs to be some balance on reflecting what the condition of the Yellowstone ecosystem is right now… overall that ecosystem is in better balance probably than it has been in the last 150 years.”

Sholly cited successful efforts in restoring wildlife habitats, from wolves to bison, beavers and grizzlies, and so on. 

“The reason these things were out of balance was because of us,” said Sholly. “We’re the ones that killed all the wolves, we’re the ones that dropped the bison numbers down in the last century. The recovery of those species… really are individually some of the most incredible conservation success stories in the world.”

And the challenges continue, said Sholly: “We have a lot of work to do, from native species, to white bark pine, whether it’s changes in temperature and how it is affecting snowmelt… there is no question that’s happening and there’s no question we have to work together using the best available science and information to decide what our strategies need to be moving forward.”

Describing the national park system as laboratories in some ways, Sholly said the parks can play a critical role in adding to scientific knowledge. 

“Because they’re protected we can evaluate those changes, and what they’ve been over time,” he explained. “And they’re great places for education, getting people to understand what those challenges are, what does climate change mean, what effects climate change has on a place like Yellowstone.”

The parks, Sholly thinks, can also set a sustainability standard, showcasing models of the best ethical behaviors in relationship to what needs to be done on a global scale to combat the impacts of climate change—from managing vehicle fleets to recycling.

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