The Roundup: A Conversation With Cam Sholly

Tune in to The Roundup, a podcast featuring voices, opinions, and perspectives from interesting people in the Cowboy State. Episode 3 features our conversation with Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.

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Wendy Corr

December 23, 202328 min read

Podcast 12 24 23
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Cowboy State Daily’s “The Roundup” - Episode 3 - Cam Sholly

Well, hey there, folks, and welcome to this episode of “The Roundup,” a Cowboy State Daily podcast that gathers -- just like a roundup -- that gathers ideas and talks about issues and all the things and the people that are important to us here in the Cowboy State. And I am so excited to bring you, I can't even say “the elusive,” because one of the great things about this gentleman is that he does make himself available to us. Whenever we've got questions, if there's a story, there's something going on. Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, has always been available to be that person, that face to answer those questions that we all want to know about Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, the most high profile National Park in the system. Cam, would you agree with that, that Yellowstone is the crown jewel of the national park system?

Cam Sholly

Well, thanks for having me. Wendy. Yeah, I would, I would say a lot of people around the world cared deeply about Yellowstone and especially here in America.

Wendy Corr

So, Cam, one of the things that we do on The Roundup here is we actually kind of go backwards in time a little bit. And we talk about who you were before you became the guy with the hat at Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone National Park, it's your childhood. It's your life before. Tell us about your history with Yellowstone National Park.

Cam Sholly

Well, it wasn't my childhood. My father worked here in the 80s, early 90s. And I went to high school in the last two years of my high school in Gardiner, Montana. So you know, it's a, it's an incredible place, something that's very important to my family. And that I learned to love that a young age of 16 years old or so, got Gardiner high school, went in the military, got out of the military and immediately started working for the park service as a seasonal maintenance worker in the backcountry, actually, in thoroughfare, which is one of the most remote areas in the lower 48, which is a very spectacular part of the park and lived in work down there for two summers in 1990-91. So kind of finished high school and started my NPS career here in the park and just crossed over five years superintendent in October. So time has gone by, it's been a an interesting run.

Wendy Corr

Interesting, that is a really good way to put it -- because you have, from flood to pandemic, if there has been a disaster that's come to Yellowstone National Park, you've had to deal with it. My goodness, tell me about that, because we all know the news and the stories that have that have come out of Yellowstone, tell me about how your experiences in the Park Service, have prepared you to deal with those things. And maybe tell us a little bit about your career in the Park Service.

Cam Sholly

Well, I've moved my wife 11 times in 30 years. So I've been in a considerable number of assignments from Yosemite as the chief of Ranger operations to seven and a half years and a couple of different jobs in Washington, superintendent of a Parkway in the southern US and regional director in the Midwest, where we had 61 parks, between the Dakotas in Ohio and Canada in Arkansas. And so I came to this job from the Midwest. And, you know, I think the challenges that occur here in Yellowstone, floods and Pandemic withstanding are, are, are some of the biggest in the country, in the national park system, that we have in the US.

And you know, whether the wildlife species or increasing visitation or any number of things, people truly care about this place. They're very opinionated about their viewpoints on how we're managing the park and our, you know, what decisions that we're making, that's because they're truly interested in, in what's happening. And you know, the decisions that we make in this park do affect a lot of the states and counties and communities outside of the park economically and otherwise, in decisions that are made outside the park. Our wildlife, species, wildlife management, etc. affect what happens in the park.

So it's important that, you know, what I've learned in my, my travels across the country has been power of relationships and partnerships. I think that's we've built some really, a trust me, I get it, not everybody agrees with everything we do here. But you know, we've built some very incredible relationships, I think with many of the critical stakeholders that surround this park, whether it's members of Congress, governors, community members, you know, ranchers are business owners. And I think that's been proven, you know, sell the team here, you want to have those relationships before you need them. And we've needed them.

I mean, think about the COVID closure and everything back in 20, which seems like a lifetime ago, to what happened here last year, and how fast we all came together to try to get the park reopened. And that doesn't happen unless you've got good relationships and trust built up.

And, you know, I think that's probably one of the single most important things that we do is, you know, try to make good decisions, informed by many of the people that care about this place and not not make unilateral decisions that are unexplainable or indefensible. So I've had the great fortune of working in jobs that I've been able to create really good partnerships and relationships. And those are important for not only dealing with the hair in the now but the future as well of the park.

And I think that, you know, whoever comes in after me -- because we're all only here for a short period of time -- do the best that you can in your window is going to be handed over park that's facing a significant number of challenges in the future, but we’ve also made some significant progress over the last five or six years. Not that I'm leaving or anything, I don't think, but at some point my time will go

Wendy Corr

Yeah, at some point -- thank you for clarifying that. We we are happy with you here where you are. Thank you very much. So we're glad with what you have done. So far, you have touched on and mentioned several times about the future of the park. And that is on a lot of people's minds is visitation. Visitation is going to soon cross 5 million people in a summer, a number that seems unimaginable, that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. But that means that you've got infrastructures that need to be able to carry that many people, that means that you've got staffing that needs to be able to address that many people. What are the mitigation processes that you are considering? What are the sorts of decisions you're having to make to plan for that eventuality?

Cam Sholly

Well, it's a good question. It's complicated. I think I'll just set it up by saying that, you know, the park is 2.2 million acres, you know, which is bigger than Delaware, and Rhode Island put together. Less than 2000 acres of the park are pavement, roads, pull outs, parking lots, and somewhere we estimate 97% of the park parks visitors, you know, they never get more than a half mile away from their cars.

So you've got most of that, you know, for four and a half million visits per year occurring in, you know, something like 0.2% of the park. And most of that occurring between, you know, May and September. And it sets up for, you know, some serious challenges in certain parts of the park, especially in July and August, even in September now in June or September, June are basically about the same visitation wise.

So the shoulder seasons are disappearing, that we used to have, you know that most of the visitation would come between Memorial Day and Labor Day. And then it would really fall off after kids went back to school and things like that. And we're not seeing that now. I mean, we're closing in, I think we had I don't have the numbers in front of me, but eight or 900,000 visitors in September, you know, million in July, per month. And, you know, it's something that I want to and we are think about very carefully in the future.

Now, if you want to have a really good time, go to one of these gateway communities and start talking about reservation systems or visitation caps. You know, it's not a super popular topic, and we're not there at this point.

But yeah, to your point about 5 million or six, I don't know what the number is. There is a point in time, and it's basically a matter of math, based on you know, what the number of cars and then the amount of road mileage that we will hit a point where, you know, we've got to take some actions together to manage visitation, you know, more effectively right now, you know, we're focused more in areas that we know are congested, such as Old Faithful, Midway Geyser Basin corridor, Norris Canyon rims, Mammoth, Lamar Valley type of thing? And what are the actions that we can take in those specific areas to you know, mitigate gridlock and still provide a good visitor experience?

And, you know, what are the impacts of increasing visitation on the resources in this park? You've heard me say that before. Probably the biggest impact to your point about infrastructure is, you know, a lot of people don't think about this. But you know, our wastewater and water systems were built back in the 70s and 80s, when visitation was 2 million ish. And the capacity of those systems to host visitation that's double or more than when those those systems were constructed, is something that's really important.

We've been very fortunate to get a considerable amount of money from the Great American Outdoors Act, Legacy restoration fund to invest into the transportation assets in this park, bridges, roads. Several hundred million dollars to upgrade wastewater and water systems. I think we treated somewhere around 78 million gallons of water of drinking water last year for visitors. People don't think about, you know, what's it take to clean 700 bathrooms you know, three times a day instead of one, what's it take to empty 2000 garbage cans four times a day instead of two. That's all staffing, it's more trucks. It's more. It's more support that's necessary to run the operation effectively. And those are Things that we have to think about in future.

You know, it, what are the impacts on staffing and infrastructure and operations, public safety, law enforcement calls, emergency medical service calls, you know, all of those things that require money for us to staff appropriately. And as you know, we we have been very fortunate over on the infrastructure side for investments were challenged on the operation side. And we're going to need to be thinking about that very carefully in the future. So, kind of, that's something we're looking at very closely.

We're also looking at what are the what are the visitors think? I mean, the surveys that we did in 16, and 18. What we thought the visitors thought wasn't really what they thought they were, what did the visitors think? Well, generally speaking, we were they were, and I don't know why exactly, except that they didn't seem as concerned about sitting in traffic at Wildlife jams.

And my my, my theory on that is that it's a bucket list trip, we found out that almost 70% of the visitors are first time visitors. They they've never seen a bison in the wild, they never seen an elk. Many of them. Obviously, a lot of most of them have never seen Grizzlies whatever the case is, it's not their fault. departures didn't build shoulders, on the roads. And when they come here, and they get to see all the things they came to see, might they be a little frustrated with the traffic Yes, in certain areas, but they also are very satisfied with the fact that they saw, you know, a sow into Cubs or, you know, 1000 bison in Lamar Valley or, you know, whatever, you know, whatever you want to learn every species is interesting, and moose. And they leave here pretty satisfied.

The people that are irritated are the locals that are in the park on a regular basis, the employees and the repeat visitors that have been here a ton of time to know exactly where they want to go. And they've seen, you know, a ton of, you know, bison and and wolves and things like that. And so, generally speaking, those surveys showed us that they aren't as concerned about traffic, as we thought that they they were. And that doesn't mean that we don't do things to manage traffic, we've done a lot of things to manage traffic more effectively last couple of years, including putting map traffic management unit together in the west corridor that's really helped managing our wildlife jams more effectively managing our parking lots more effectively, things that are pretty basic that we weren't doing necessarily we're doing now.

And that's kind of this micro geographic approach to addressing visitation on these on a smaller scale gradually, as we as we move forward in time. But as we get further and further into, you know, like I said, I don't know the number, exactly 5 million, 6 million, those actions are going to need to be more are going to do expand and be more aggressive. What I've promised these gateway communities and in the states is that, you know, that's not a light switch. It's not something that, you know, surprise Burundi reservation system next year. It's a it's not a unilateral decision. I want to have a lot of conversations about people's thoughts.

When I say it's complicated, you know, one of the areas we're also looking at, aside from resources, operations and staffing and experience I talked about what are the impacts on the gateways, you know, from a recreational access standpoint, from economic standpoint. And, you know, those are considerations that we need to we need to discuss as well in any type of decision making that we make moving forward. And so I get a lot of, you know, what, Zions put a, you know, they've got a shuttle system and a reservation system where you somebody did the sort of Acadia did that.

Every Park is in a different place in time. And it can be frustrating for the public to have, you know, different models popping up in different parts around the country. And I think there's some consistency that's needed nationally there but you know, Zions 149,000 acres and has like 42 miles of road. It gets four and a half million visitors a year, we have 2.2 million acres get four and a half million visitors a year on 450 Miles road. So we're not in the same situation, what might be required for Zion sooner than Yellowstone, or pick a park and, you know, we've got to make some decisions.

But like I said, we're going to take our time, make sure we're doing the right engagement come up with the right. approach, and, you know, might be some trial and error. You saw something last year with the Emergency with the flood with an alternating license plate system. Good idea came that idea came from business owners in the gateways. Hmm. You know, so it might be like, Hey, we can there's some different things we can look at and try what do people want? What problems are we solving. But it's important that we have the relationships to have those conversations and that we're thinking through things and thinking through the different types of impacts that might occur depending on what we do.

Wendy Corr

Now, one of the things that happens when you get so many visitors is the potential for human wildlife interactions, negative human wildlife interactions goes up. What are some of the things is there anything that the Park Service can do to help prevent, for lack of a better term stupid human tricks? When it comes to the coming up in approaching bison to too closely or standing too close to a mama bear and her cubs? Is there anything you can do? Because already people are being given when they walk in the door when they come in the gate? They've got all the signs, they've got all the warnings, right there don't approach the wildlife? Is there anything more that the Park Service can do to help mitigate that?

Cam Sholly

Well, it makes for good YouTube material. I think there's got to be a little context on there is no question that we have many, many incidents every year of visitors approaching wildlife too closely and putting themselves and the wildlife and others in danger. I do think it's important that people understand this is the largest interface in the world have visitors and wildlife in the same place at the same time.

So you can go to Africa and see more, more wildlife, but no people, and you can go to playing places and see more people, not that much wildlife. You get both here. And when you consider for four and a half million people 80% Or more coming in a four month window. And the amount of wildlife that we have in the park. The percentage of incidents proportional to the size of the the animal population in the visitor population is pretty miniscule. All things considered most visitors, I think behave very well.

The problem is you get this small percentage, and everybody's got a camera now. And I think these you know, is it more prevalent? Are these I get asked a lot. Are these have these types of incidents happening more? I think they're being documented a lot more. There's probably no question there happening more when you've got more visitors, you're obviously going to have a correlation there with more incidents.

But I do think it's important that we put it into context that it's not like some staggering number of proportion with a four and a half million visitors coming here per year, as far as the number of incidents that we know about. And obviously there's plenty that we don't know about, but it is something that we're challenged by, and that we work on very hard through, you know, our communications, education, social media, you know, our teams do a really good job of, I think, coming up with, you know, graphics and different things in different languages for people to get the picture, frankly, some of the YouTube videos that are out there of people, unfortunately, getting gored. I think, do show the public that serious consequences can happen when when wildlife is approached. That also gets to staffing. What we've seen is obviously, when we have Rangers on the ground, in those situations, we have a much better chance of not having incidents with visitors where we're seeing those incidents happening. Or in places where a lot of times we don't have staff on scene.

And so, you know, the elk right here at Mammoth is probably one of the better examples. You know, we decided to basically build a team for the elk, right? Because it's such a crazy and anybody that's been a mammoth and you know, late August through September, early October, you got three or four bulls run around chasing each other RAM and cars chasing people. I mean, it's crazy though, and the staff does a terrific job of man Genet interface and keeping people away. But that, that that takes capacity. And when you start planning that out across the park this size for a season as long as we have as many visitors as we have as much wildlife as we have, you know, I think that's really an area that we talked about the impacts of increasing visitation on staffing. And then wildlife. That's, that's something that we've got to we've got to focus on.

Wendy Corr

Let's switch gears, you're just for a little bit because we've talked about the problems. And we've talked about the issues. What we haven't talked about is Yellowstone itself. And why it is so beloved, why do people love Yellowstone National Park? You started your your career there as a young adult, you're back now as the top dog. What brought you back? What is it about Yellowstone, it says, I want to live there, I want to work there. I want to make this a better experience. What's special about Yellowstone?

Cam Sholly

Well, aside from it being America's first national park, the world's first national park, the very interesting history on how this park was created before the states, not a single member of Congress had never stepped foot in this park at the time in 1871 1872. You know, none of the members of Congress that voted for the awesome park Act had ever been here. They did. Everything voted was voted on the expedition reports, paintings of the resources here. And you think about seven years after the Civil War. I mean, Ulysses S Grant, there was no national park concept, there was no such notable term called conservation at that point. I mean, the fact that that even happened was a miracle, in many ways and setups.

I mean, you know, if a few Olson wasn't here, right now, it looks like, you know, Jackson Hole or Paradise Valley or, you know, it's, it's pretty amazing that it was set aside when it was, and it's a good thing that it was the reason why people like it, I think you're hard pressed anywhere in the world to find the diversity of resources, natural, geologic, cultural, historic resources, all in one place. And, you know, to be able to literally see old faithful in one day, or Grand Prismatic Spring, oh, and across the street, there's a bunch of bikes and I want a mile up the road, there's a grizzly. It's just, it's in you can see it from your car most of the time. Or close to your car.

I think that's a special thing for people as far as an experience goes. And I think, you know, when we talk about the future and the visitor experience, you know, protecting those resources is first and foremost is the Paramount priority for us. We could talk all day long about the positive economic impacts and everything that's parked does for you know, Montana and Idaho and Wyoming economically, especially in these gateway communities and counties. That's around the park. But that balance is important in regard to making decisions that protect the park first, and allow for that type of activity to occur that benefits so many outside of the park. And so, you know, everybody's got and this is it's a question around.

Why do people think so highly of this place is because everybody has different favorites. So if I ask, you know, 50 people, what's your favorite thing about Yellowstone? I'll get a lot of common answers but also get a lot of like, you know, I like to watch trumpeter swans and Hayden Valley for like five hours. Okay. I like to watch wolves like all day from six o'clock in the morning till six o'clock at night. And I just sit out there in my lawn chair and watch him. I like to fly fish on, you know, the given River, the Madison River and the Firehole River on the same day. And or, I like to geyser gays. You know, there's a whole group of guys are gazers. They're like diehards that just sit there and wait for Steamboat Geyser erupt

 And so a lot of these people come up with, you know, why don't we do a park wide shuttle system? And the problem with the shuttle system is people want to I talked to a lot of people every year. What I found is that, you know, in a survey show that like 90% of people supported shuttle system as long as they don't have to use it.

Wendy Corr

So that that does make a difference.

Cam Sholly

Well, yeah, it makes a huge difference. Number one, it's super expensive. Number two, though, all the things I just listed, the person that wants to watch the trumpeter swans, the person that wants to watch the wolves or fish in three different rivers, you know, five different places, whatever.

What do you do if I make you get on a shuttle system at West Yellowstone, and put your, you know, Baby Jogger and diaper bags and suitcases on the bus. And then you drive in. And, you know, there's 50 people on the bus and you wanted to see that bird or you want to see that you want to stop at that particular spot in fish, what do you do pull the string on the shuttle and have them stop and get off and then hope that you can get back on and when you decide you want to go fish another mile at the river where the case is.

And so what I found is that people, they want their cars, they want to go where they want to go. They want to stop where they want to stop, they want to stay as long as they want to stay. And they love that freedom. If they want to picnic out of the back of their truck, in a pull out Hayden Valley to do that if they want to go to a picnic carried in his purse or someplace they can do that. And so there's a lot to be said about a park this size and having the flexibility to go where you want to go and stay where you want to stay for as long as you want to be there. And I think some of the shuttle concepts, although they seem great. In some places they work. It may not be the best idea for this park considered how big it is, how much road mileage it is, and how many things are hard to see and how differently people view what they want to look at when they come here.

Wendy Corr

That makes sense, absolutely. It we're sadly we're getting close to running out of time here camp. So I want to turn that question back on you. You've probably know Yellowstone better than 99.9% of the population. What's your favorite part of the park? Is there a part of the part that has yet been undiscovered? That you would say Oh, everybody should see this? What's your favorite?

Cam Sholly

Well, I wouldn't tell it until I wouldn't tell.

Wendy Corr

Yeah, keep it quiet.

Cam Sholly

No, I do think I you know, I there's too many favorite parts of the park. I mean, I love so many areas in this park. The thoroughfare if I had to name a favorite is my favorite, which is in the southeast corner of the park and is, like I said, one of the most remote areas in the lower 48 states. And, you know, I think it's probably one of most spectacular places on the planet. Most people, most people don't get to see it. And, but there are a ton of very, very special places around the park for people to access either by hiking by horseback by by their cars. And, you know, it's just a really incredible part of Yellowstone is just the diversity that it offers to the visiting public.

Wendy Corr

Well, I agree and having lived here as long as I have I just find it to be one of the most fascinating places and, and it is it's a sacred space for a lot of people as well.

Cam Sholly

Yeah, it sure is. And I think you know, I was I was one thing I want people just to remember what I said earlier is you know, I was in Bozeman on Monday for an appointment and the doctor I was seeing was like, Yeah, I don't I can't stand going to Yellowstone because it's, it's too crowded. You know, what are you gonna do about the crowds?

And, you know, already mentioned some of the things that we're looking at there, but I think it's important that the people that live in this place who do have right Concerns about how things have changed over the last multiple decades, especially with more development and things like that. Do understand that the majority of the visitors coming to Yellowstone are first time visitors. And they they're experiencing the park for the first time. So people that have been here many, many times or, you know, are frustrated by the visitation need to keep in mind that the person is driving 20 miles an hour and, and slowing you down from getting to where you want to go, because you've been here 100 times. Very likely, they're they're there for the first time. They're here for the first time. And kind of a break.

I mean, it's like the amount of frustration I get it, I understand, to a degree, but the reality is that we're delivering an experience on like no other that people get to enjoy. And there's enormous benefits to that, whether your lens is economics or conservation or, you know, whatever. And, you know, it's important that we manage it effectively.

This narrative that the parks are being overrun by visitors. And then they show a, you know, a picture of a half a mile traffic jam and a grizzly sighting. By kept visitation right now at 2 million per year. I don't care what happens of grizzly pops out every single car on that section of roads going to stop no matter what. Even the people that have seen a lot of Grizzlies, we're going to probably stop. And so there should not be this conflation with, you know, traffic jams, especially a wildlife sightings, especially rare wildlife sightings. And, and that picture being painted as that's the entire park. That's what the entire park looks like. Because I can tell you, almost 50% of the visitation comes in the west entrance. And the viewpoints of the west of West Yellowstone can be quite different than the viewpoints. And Cody, which is 50 miles from the east entrance, you know, you're getting 6000 cars a day coming in one entrance, and you're getting, you know, 100 or 1000 in the other.

And so you know, we've got to have those conversations around what's what's going to be effective in the future. But people need to put things into context, the ecosystem is healthier now than it's ever been. We're making investments, record levels of investments, like we never have in this part. We didn't get into the employee housing component. Maybe next time, you know, some of the other we but we have a lot of challenges in the future. But let's also, you know, take some time to reflect what we've all been through in the last couple of years, a lot of difficulty, a lot of challenging times. And an understanding that some of these things we've been through, I think, prove that the future challenges that we're going to face, we can also get through with the right level of collaboration and communication. So I appreciate you having me on and have been having the discussion about this great place.

Wendy Corr

Well, we sure appreciate you being a guest for us here at Camp Shelly, thank you for your time today. And thanks for taking such good care of our national treasure right here in the Northwest corner of Wyoming. We're sure appreciative of what you do and what your staff does. And all the people there the volunteers that make it happen.

Cam Sholly

Yeah, it's all about the team and the partners. And that's in the park and out of the park. And I appreciate it when it's great to see you and we'll talk to you soon.

Wendy Corr

Well, it's great to see you too. Cam. Thank you so much. And folks, thank you for tuning in to the round up our Cowboy State daily podcast. If you want to know more about these fascinating people and issues and places that make up this amazing cowboy state of ours. Be sure to sign up for your free newsletter cowboystatedaily.com We've got an amazing team of reporters who bring those stories to you every day. Just sign up for free at cowboystatedaily.com . Thanks for tuning in today. Thank you Cam Sholly. I'm your host, Wendy Corr. We will see you next week.

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Wendy Corr

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