FEATURE: Cruel Summer

By on June 7, 2016

Happy Hundred. Are we prepared for the centennial slam headed our way?

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Increased seismic activity in recent years has lengthened the interval between Old Faithful eruptions by some 20 minutes. Crowds are swelling there as they wait longer for the geyser to blow. (Photo: Neal Herbert)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Some call last summer a tipping point; others say it represented the new norm. At any rate, it will probably be remembered as the season that Jackson Hole stopped becoming fun. Local economist Jonathan Schechter can no doubt trot out an array of charts and graphs to put it in its quantitative place. The Chamber of Commerce could back up every eye-popping stat with its own DestiMetrics data. But the proof in the taste of the pudding is a testimonial from a 20-year resident who moved away last winter after our ‘summer from hell.’

“You want a perfect example of why I left Jackson Hole? It hit me all at once one day last summer,” said Bill Sawyer. “I was sitting in traffic on 22. None of us had moved more than 10 yards in an hour. There was an accident; one of many that summer. I was going to miss my 6:30 dinner reservation, which sucked because I had made it two weeks prior and that was the only time they had available even that far ahead. I would not usually eat that early.

“I was cursing myself for stopping at [a nearby café] for a coffee. It was a 10-minute delay that probably put me in that traffic jam. All for nothing because the coffee shop was closed even though they were supposed to be open. There was a sign on the door saying they had gone home early because of a lack of employees.

“I tried to bring up the website of the restaurant to call them but the Internet was dog slow. I tried calling my parents who I was going to meet for dinner but all I got was a message saying all circuits were busy, try again later. Earlier that day it was eight deep at the carwash and the line was way out the door for breakfast at Noras, the Bunnery, and the Virg.

“I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ This wasn’t enjoyable anymore. Summer in Jackson had become an all-out battle of wills. Everything I was accustomed to doing on a routine, daily basis had become this arduous challenge, and I was becoming more and more angry at everyone and everything. I made the decision then and there to sell my place and move away.”

Sawyer’s nightmare epiphany was pretty much what most of us experienced last summer. Sure, we’ve had busy seasons but that summer was different. That summer was off the charts.

“[W]hat’s been bugging me is a feeling that something has gone very wrong—a feeling we’re battling some sort of monster we created but which has turned on us and we’re powerless to control. At times this summer, Jackson Hole has felt like it’s on the verge of going off the rails…” Schechter wrote in his News&Guide column toward the end of last season.

I know what you did last summer

This summer, already heating up, promises to be worse…or better if your income depends on the cash register. But even then, if you’re one of the many who make hay when the sun shines between June and September, it is quickly becoming not worth the headache.

As Jackson Hole works through the growing pains of moving from roadside attraction to world-class resort destination, how will we handle the hordes of visitors headed our way for the next four months? What will break first: our toilets or tempers?

In 2014, Parks and Rec had to close their pool for much of the summer. They couldn’t find lifeguards. Sweetwater Restaurant also shut down for a day in August. Owner Trey Davis forfeited the seven grand or so he could have made. It wasn’t worth it. His staff, he said, was exhausted. A crew short 10 full-timers had been working nonstop, some for weeks on end.

Couloir recently announced its intention to simply shutter for this summer partially due to a lack of employees. Other businesses are curtailing hours significantly at the beginning of this season until they can get staffed up. More than one restaurant owner admitted to taking a bath this spring when 2-for-1 deals typically tailored for locals were pounced on by savvy shoulder season travellers who aren’t supposed to be here yet.

Last summer, cell phone calls were dropped and Internet was wonky; all because data towers were pounded beyond capacity, say reps from Verizon and AT&T. Traffic was SoCal caustic. Crosstown jaunts went from the usual five minutes to 15. A trip to or from the West Bank during rush hour bloated to nearly an hour from the standard 20 minutes. Add to that an accident and a motorist was better off selling their car on the spot and walking. Forty collisions were reported in the first nine days of August last summer. By comparison, the previous August racked up 38 total wrecks for the entire month.

Not much if anything has changed to beef up the infrastructure that just about buckled last summer when an estimated 4 million visited Jackson. At least that, and probably more, is expected this summer as the National Park Service turns 100 in August. Like a fry cook quaking in the shadow of an arriving tour bus, this community already appears steeled in dread against what we know is coming.

Lines at entrance gates caused three-hour waits last summer. Yellowstone officials promise better conditions this season. (Photo: Neal Herbert)

Lines at entrance gates caused three-hour waits last summer. Yellowstone officials promise better conditions this season. (Photo: Neal Herbert)

Summer 2016 forecast: hot and stormy

“This is going to be a tough summer from a readiness and capacity standpoint, no question. The numbers we are going to see this year are going to be like something we’ve never seen,” said Chamber of Commerce president Jeff Golightly.  “Are we ready? Not everyone is. Not all businesses in this community are going to be. Clearly, with the limiting factor of where housing is today, staffing is incredibly challenging right now. And the infrastructure we have built can only sustain so many people. We can’t get fuller than full, from a lodging standpoint. Once we get to capacity, we are at capacity.”

Jackson lodging metrics indicated a steady 99 to 100 percent occupancy rate for the summer months last season. Already visitation in Jackson is up for 2016. Comparing April 2015 with this April—more people visited Yellowstone (+27 percent), Grand Teton (+13 percent), and Jackson Hole in general (+143 percent).

And May was the new June. Lodging occupancy rates last May were up 12 to 27 percent as the month progressed, compared to May 2015. June is on fire. By midmonth, average occupancy rates in Jackson are expected to be running at max—100 percent.

When Jackson is running balls out, the cop shop is poppin’. Police Chief Todd Smith said he’s as ready as he can be for the summer when the average monthly calls for service doubles from 2,000 to 4,000.

“There are more collisions, more congestion, more driving complaints,” Smith said. “It puts a strain on your resources to have the amount of people necessary to keep response times low, but we prioritize calls, of course. Emergencies will always be responded to as fast as we can. It’s the lower level calls that have to wait a little longer until a policeman shows up.”

Sheriff Jim Whalen said he has enough staff going into the summer; it’s getting deputies to the scene that has him worried.

“Traffic got so bad last summer we had a hard time getting there. It doesn’t matter if you have lights on the top of your car or not. From 4 to 7 [p.m.] last summer, there were times it took us 40 minutes or more to get to Teton Village. That’s just an unfortunate circumstance and sometimes we are not able to perform our jobs like we would want,” Whalen said. “This summer certainly has the potential to present public safety concerns for us. It may take longer to respond than what any of us would want it to take.”

When asked if the Town of Jackson was prepared for summer crowds, town administrator Bob McLaurin half-joked, “We bought extra toilet paper.”

He added, “We stand prepared to deal with it. Whether it’s extra restroom cleaning or jumping out and directing traffic, you’ve got to be nimble and ready to respond. We are going to be building temporary bus parking on King Street. We are trying to facilitate the construction of additional cell towers for Verizon and AT&T. But bottom line: When the place is full, the place is full. Last summer, we got full.”

This summer? Schechter is among many who think it will break more than records. “I’m highly confident we’ll hit all-time highs in traffic, housing, and general congestion problems—exceeding those of last summer,” he said.

Who let the dogs out?

Why is Jackson Hole blowing up? Some blame the two percent lodging tax and revenue it generates (about $5 million annually) for the promotion of tourism. It’s true, the Travel and Tourism Board (TTB) has been so good at promoting the off-seasons, they’re hardly off anymore.

Karen Connelly, spokesperson for St. John’s Medical Center, said not only does the hospital ramp up in the summer with increased staffing for Urgent Cares and the emergency room, but it’s burnout SJMC workers have to guard against. “The off- seasons don’t get very quiet for us anymore. Our staff works hard and they don’t get that sort of breather, or that break, in fall and spring anymore. We go from busy to really busy,” she said.

Alex Klein, chair of the TTB, said his board is not promoting summer one bit. That happens all by itself.

Park officials hope new signage prevents misuse of toilets by Chinese visitors that has caused significant destruction.

Park officials hope new signage prevents misuse of toilets by Chinese visitors that has caused significant destruction.

“TTB does not promote between June 20 and September 20,” Klein said. “The state is promoting Wyoming. The national parks themselves launched their Brand USA marketing campaign for the centennial this year. The National Geographic issue highlighted the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.  [For the first time ever, Nat Geo devoted an entire issue (May 2016) to one subject: Yellowstone]. About half a million Chinese tourists—a demographic that tends to travel a little more regularly in our shoulder season—visited our area last year. There was an increase of tour buses by 20 percent in the parks.”

Earlier this year, the Wyoming Office of Tourism (WOT) launched its “That’s WY” marketing campaign. In addition to the $14 million WOT spends annually on promoting state tourism, the Disney-Pixar movie, “The Good Dinosaur,” also did its part to spur travel to the Cowboy State.

Last year, Wyoming attracted a record 10.5 million tourists, bringing nearly $3.4 billion to the state economy. Research shows that for every dollar Wyoming invests in advertising, the state gets $202 in return from tourist spending. Projections for 2016 are on pace for another record high.

“People look at local factors to cast blame on, but it’s more of a perfect storm of emerging markets, recession rebound, low gas prices—it’s one thing after another,” Golightly said. “And it’s not just us. I did an analysis at other national parks. Grand Teton hasn’t grown anywhere near what Grand Canyon and Zion did last year. Rocky Mountain National Park is up over 42 percent in the last two years. Zion is in the 30s. Grand Canyon’s in the 20s.”

Jim Waldrop is the general manager of The Wort. His hotel is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. He also serves on the TTB. He said the TTB has been tasked with boosting winter and shoulder seasons, and they’ve done just that. The Wort had its best lodging season ever last year—about 99 percent occupancy. Food and Beverage numbers were up double digits.

“The TTB has done a terrific job lengthening the season. I had the best May in the history of The Wort this year, and October and November are already pacing well ahead of last year. I attribute that to the work of the TTB,” Waldrop said. “Last summer was certainly a banner year for us and we do anticipate exceeding that this year. The increased numbers are due to a lot of factors, but I don’t believe any of them includes the lodging tax. I’m excited for the summer and I think this community will rise to the occasion.”

And it’s not just increased visitation Jackson Hole has had to deal with. Housing and transportation issues dog the community like never before. Economic analyst Jan Mrazek scouts new locations for major businesses looking to expand. He has studied Teton County for potential clients on numerous occasions. He’s noticed a demographic at play that he thinks has been unaddressed.

“I think one overlooked aspect, from what I know of your area, is the rise and corresponding influx of working vacationers, or the ‘workacationers.’ Recent college grads, well, a host of kids in their 20s, really, are not finding jobs after college. Partly because they aren’t under any pressure to land one and begin ‘real life,’ and partly because they are holding out for what they perceive is the primo career gig they went to school for. So, in the meantime, they are flocking to places like Jackson Hole where the quality of life supports a continuation of the college party scene with plenty of jobs they can bounce around to and from,” Mrazek said.

If you can’t stand the heat…

It might seem a bit callous to bemoan the stupendously successful summer tourist season. Complain if you must, but do so under your breath in the vicinity of other Wyoming counties not quite as fortunate.

“Budget-wise, we are hanging in there,” McLaurin said. “The fiscal crisis in Wyoming, at this point, has only affected capital improvement projects where we are down $2 million. We are one of only four counties across the state that doesn’t have falling sales tax.”

Golightly, too, cautions J-Holers about punching their gift horse in the mouth.

“I was just in Cheyenne at the treasurer’s office. Of all 23 counties, only two were up with sales tax—us and Park County. Every other county was down, some significantly. The conversations around dinner tables in other parts of the state, with layoffs and cutbacks in the energy industry, couldn’t be more stark from ours right now,” Golightly said. “I would rather have a discussion about how to deal with excess than how to recover and keep people employed. You hate to lose members of your community who can’t find a house, but you also hate to lose members who can’t find a job. I just wish there could be a little more balance right now throughout the state.”

Gillette has been walloped particularly hard by the oil and gas downturn. Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Mary Silvernell has her fingers crossed for this summer’s tourist season. Projections are optimistic but fall off 26 percent from where the county was last year.

“My heart is breaking for Jackson,” Silvernell said, facetiously, upon hearing of the Hole’s woes. “Send them our way if you got too many. We’ll be happy to entertain them. Honestly, though, I can see what you guys are going through—the deluge of people coming through there. Just think, though, about all you are contributing to the state coffers.”

Yellowstone’s first traffic jam? Col. P.W. Norris enters Upper Geyser Basin in Aug. 1878 on a government exploration mission. (Photo: Neal Herbert/Flikr)

Yellowstone’s first traffic jam? Col. P.W. Norris enters Upper Geyser Basin in Aug. 1878 on a government exploration mission. (Photo: Neal Herbert/Flikr)

Tourism has become the second-largest state industry behind energy extraction. In Jackson Hole, it has always been number one. The county sinks and soars with the Dow, it’s true, but the lows can be ridden out. It’s the highs that are killing us.

“Generally we avoid resort communities like the plague because of the fluctuation inherent in their reliance on outside economic forces. But Jackson Hole is the exception to many rules,” Mrazek said. “In that region there are enough whales impervious to market swings to keep you floating when times are tough. I would go as far as to say your economic health is practically independent of state revenues, which are in decline in Wyoming, to the point you are able to survive if not thrive on visitation and relocation. In busts, you are still a vibrant community. In booms, well, you are the summer of 2015.”

The downside of up

The cost of a bountiful harvest in Jackson Hole is easily seen in traffic jams and wait times for just about everything. What is less apparent is the slow degradation of the visitor experience. From grumpy locals to exorbitant prices, more and more travellers are dinging the Hole on social media. Just a few samples from last summer’s TripAdvisor reviews included these gems. They were not hard to find.

“The food was tasty although definitely not worth the price. The service was horrible. Waited 20 minutes for someone to come take a drink order. [W]e finished the drinks while waiting 40 more minutes for them to take our dinner order,” wrote John S. regarding his August 2015 visit.

Beth B. stayed in Jackson Hole last July. She wrote: “Very, very busy hotel in the summer. Bfast area always too crowded—not enough capacity for the busy tourist season. Rates are very high for the value of the hotel, but you are paying for Jackson address.”

Another visitor, CaliSwede-17 wrote, “Service was quite slow and the waiter didn’t seem too excited about his job. Managers [were] running the food out.”

“Too expensive and too crowded,” Bradley R. wrote, summing up his June 2015 visit.

GoBankingRates confirmed the spendy aspect of Jackson. Published by Money and YahooFinance, its 2016 “30 Most Expensive Cities to Vacation in the U.S.” ranked Jackson No. 1, ahead of New York, Napa Valley, San Francisco, Boston, and Anchorage.

Waldrop says he never stops encouraging his staff at The Wort to stay positive and smile.

“We talk about it every week. What we teach here is every interaction—whether it’s with a guest staying with us for two weeks or someone coming through to use the bathroom—is an opportunity to engage a visitor,” Waldrop said. “The message [to our staff] is: we know it’s tough, it’s a challenge for us all.  But it’s who we are and that’s what we are committed to do. That’s how we set ourselves apart in this industry: by maintaining a caliber of service every day, no matter how many days we are busy.”

Klein, in addition to serving as chair on the TTB, is also general manager of Grand Teton Lodge Company where he oversees operations at Jackson Lake Lodge, Jenny Lake Lodge, and Colter Bay. Hiring hasn’t been too big of a problem for the Lodge Company thanks to available onsite housing. Klein has also been quick to react to any changes.

“With as many visitors as we serve, it’s not perfect but I think we are quite proud of the services we offer to our visitors. Generally speaking we saw increases in our guest satisfaction at the lodges. We feel like we are moving in the right direction,” Klein said. “I also think we work hard to find a strong, engaged workforce. We hire both domestically and internationally. We have a good number of bilingual members to meet the needs of some of our foreign travelers. We have hired some Mandarin speaking individuals—one that liaisons with arriving tour buses. We’ve also hired a cook who specializes in Chinese cuisine. We’ve taken some real measures to meeting the demands of the increasing amount of Chinese visitors we’ve seen.” PJH


The Parks Prepare

For decades, managers of both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks have made science and discovery a top priority. Plants, animals, air quality—all manner of flora and fauna is dissected and inspected by a cadre of regularly permitted lab coats numbering in the hundreds.

Ongoing Grand Teton research includes deglaciation in the postglacial age, climate change effects on park resources, whitebark pine monitoring and its importance to the grizzly bear, and native cutthroat trout habitat restoration. In Yellowstone, even the unseen is monitored. Geothermal activity is watched as closely as anything else from bears to bacteria.

Yet with all the science and study going on, both parks missed the obvious. The species they know the least about is the Homo sapien. Compared to thousands of elk, hundreds of wolves, and less than maybe a dozen wolverines—park officials know surprisingly little about the millions of humans migrating through their properties every year.

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Why do people feel compelled to pet moose, approach elk, feed bears, and kidnap bison? What part of “Do Not Leave the Boardwalk” is unclear to Canadian visitors? And why can’t the Chinese go to the bathroom without destroying a toilet seat in the process?

Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton recently hired social scientists to better understand the behavior of the park’s paid guests—good, bad and otherwise. Who visits national parks and why? Where do they come from and what are their expectations?

The new social science programs are just one example of the ways Yellowstone and Grand Teton are trying to ensure positive visitor experiences while protecting their natural resources.

Visitation last season to most national parks in America was unprecedented.

Yellowstone’s April was up 27 percent without the East and South gates even open. May saw a 60 percent jump in visitation compared to last season. The yearly trend is up as well. Even through the recession and federal government sequestration, Yellowstone packed them in, besting previous annual numbers with ease even after a formula change used to gauge visitation in 2013 reduced the people-per-vehicle multiplier from 2.91 in a vehicle to 2.58 people.

In Grand Teton, last May was stupendous. A record 292,318 barged into the park—a 26 percent jump over May 2015 and a 224 percent increase over May 2003, for example. Annual totals have routinely been topped since 2011. What worries park officials most, though, is the busier shoulder months. September (+18 percent) and October (+12 percent) had the most significant spikes in traffic last year when compared to 2014.

Rising visitation has brought increased headaches. Fall is a time when park officials are trimming staff yet calls for assistance in 2015 were up 10 percent over the previous season. “Parking at popular visitor destinations such as Jenny Lake, Lupine Meadows, and String Lake often exceeded capacity causing resource damage and visitor frustration,” park officials said.

And both parks are already behind the ball when it comes to ongoing upkeep and maintenance thanks to chronic underfunding and budget cuts (feds budget Yellowstone enough money to fix only 2.5 miles of road, annually. There are 251 miles of road in the 2.3 million-acre park). The deferred maintenance list for Yellowstone totals $633 million, Grand Teton has $220 million in backlogged projects it would like to get to.

Yellowstone

“Are we ready?” superintendent Dan Wenk asked himself about Yellowstone’s preparedness for summer 2016. “I think we are more ready this year than we were last year. I think it is safe to say that we were surprised by last year’s 17 percent increase. That, we weren’t expecting. That kind of a jump is very unusual.”

When they threw open the south entrance last month, an immediate 30-minute line formed waiting to get in. Last year, three-hour waits at the gates were common at peak times. Already, visitation numbers through May reflect a 60 percent jump from last year’s numbers. It’s going to be another long and challenging summer.

Wenk will over-hire this season by 5 percent just to make sure Yellowstone keeps running. Last year, park managers came up short on entrance staff, law enforcement—just about every department was hard hit and undermanned.

“How do you deal with things like people going off boardwalks at places like Grand Prismatic Springs, or people who are getting too close to wildlife, and putting themselves and the wildlife in danger?” Wenk pondered. “You deal with that by having more uniformed personnel in those locations, and being able to respond and help visitors understand how to enjoy their park better and how to protect the resources better.”

Still, even with an unlimited budget, there are only so many bunks for park employees.

“We maximize the use of employee housing in the summer. Because of the numbers of people here there is really no housing in the local communities, either,” Wenk said. “So if right now somebody gave me a million dollars and said hire 30 or 50 more people for the summer, I would say thank you very much I will try to do that, and hopefully I will find people who already live and work in one of the local communities because there is no place here to house them.”

Park personnel numbers are finite. So, too, may be visitation. Talk of one day capping the number of visitors has begun. Does Yellowstone have a carrying capacity?

“The words ‘carrying capacity’ will be attributed to you and not to me because they are words I don’t say,” Wenk prefaced. “That being said, is there a carrying capacity? Probably, but we don’t know what it is yet. Do I think there is a limit to the number of people who can come into Yellowstone, and still provide a great visitor experience and protect our resources? I do, but I have no idea what that is yet. That’s why we have initiated a very serious and robust social science program to try to understand visitor expectations, visitor experience, and the impact of visitors on resources.”

Wenk’s parting advice to Yellowstone tourists this summer: “Pack your patience.”

Grand Teton

Officials at Grand Teton have also just hired a full time social scientist, Jennifer Newton. Park managers were baffled last year after learning how many Asians utilize the bathroom. After dozens of broken toilet seats, they figured it out: the Chinese prefer to stand and squat rather than sit.

“That’s another example of the park being proactive. We sent one of our interpretive supervisors to China and brought back a PhD student from there and, oh my gosh, the dots were beginning to connect. As to their cultural experiences in Asia—they are a little different than here in the United States. That was invaluable getting that information,” said Grand Teton superintendent David Vela.

Officials will embark on an adventurous $17 million overhaul of the Jenny Lake front- and backcountry, including the popular hiking trail to features like Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, which will be closed for the entire summer. Parking in notoriously packed lots like Leigh and String lakes will be even tighter this summer as a result.

Visitation is zooming at Grand Teton as well. Last year’s total was a record 4.6 million, up from 4.3 million in 2014. Will GTNP crack the 5 million mark this year?

“That’s what folks have been saying. It’s quite possible that’s exactly what could happen. It wouldn’t surprise me,” Vela said. “If we do get close to that mark, we are going to do everything we can to ensure a safe and memorable experience for every visitor while protecting the very resources they come to experience.” PJH


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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