The Greening of Yellowstone

August 19th, 2010 by Lydia Dishman

One of America’s most iconic parks gets an eco-makeover.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Even if you’ve never set foot in Yellowstone National Park, you know its iconic natural splendors: Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the like. What you may not know— even if you’ve been there—is that Yellowstone is the largest essentially untouched ecosystem in the lower 48 states. And while its status as a national park means its "protected," that doesn’t mean its 2.2 million acres are safe.

Far from it, in fact.

Think about it. Perched astride the Continental Divide in the northern Rockies that stretch into parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, Yellowstone National Park is America's first national park, established in 1872. The year it opened, 300 curious visitors traversed the trails within its wilderness. Now, Yellowstone plays host to between 2 and 3 million people annually. Even those dubious of climate change can’t deny the impact of those crowds hiking and camping, to say nothing of all their minivans and RVs. Factor in how that horde of humanity has to eat and drink and you’re packing an environmental wallop of epic proportions.

Though it’s something that’s been on the park’s radar for a while, the greening of one of the world’s greenest places is a difficult balancing act at best, according to Yellowstone’s environmental protection specialist Jim Evanoff. "The 1872 legislation carried a double mandate: to preserve and protect the land and provide for the enjoyment of the people." Evanoff points out that sometime in the mid-20th century the scale tipped in favor of enjoyment and Yellowstone began allowing such things as feeding the bears, leaving open dumps to attract them, and introducing non-native fish to the waters.

"We eventually realized we needed to swing back. So we identified a whole list of initiatives that evolved into our environmental stewardship campaign," says Evanoff. So began the "greening of Yellowstone" with a project dubbed the Yellowstone Environmental Stewardship (YES!). YES! set some ambitious goals including:

Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30%
Reduce electricity consumption by 15%
Reduce fossil fuel consumption by 18%
Reduce water consumption by 15%
Divert 100% of solid waste from landfills

Here are just a few of their accomplishments:

A Hearty Green Welcome

On August 25th, one of Yellowstone’s most famous natural wonders will get a brand-new, sustainable neighbor. The geyser known as Old Faithful will be flanked by a visitor center that will welcome tourists and provide them with a powerful lesson in environmental stewardship. Chuck Koob, the immediate past chairman of the Yellowstone Park Foundation says the center, which will be a certified LEED Gold structure is a shining example of everything the YES! initiative hoped to bring about. Koob says the Foundation granted just over $15 million to help build the center, which incorporated eco-friendly building practices such as crushing all of the concrete from the old visitor center on site to be used as fill. Says Koob, "When you walk into the Old Faithful Visitor Center you’ll be able to get information about all the sustainable efforts that went into the building and those in the park."

What you won’t find spelled out in their materials is the fact that the Foundation itself underwent a sustainable transformation. Koob says that by identifying and grouping initiatives under their area of impact, raising funding became a more focused and more successful effort as well. Call it putting the "green" in green fundraising.

Waste Management

Jim Evanoff can rattle off some staggering statistics, “Yellowstone has 5,000 employees, 2,000 hotel rooms and 2,000 campsites. We shattered visitation records last year with 3.3 million visitors last and we are ahead of that so far this year.” However, up until five or six years ago the thousands tons of trash generated by all those people was being hauled to a landfill 100 miles away. That is until an aggressive effort to divert, reuse and eliminate the waste. Yellowstone’s composting and recycling facilities are currently diverting 80 percent (including some 1,200 tons of electronics!). For comparison, Evanoff says most communities’ target is just 20 percent.

Not surprisingly, the most prolific item in the collection is the plastic water bottle. Last year, 40 tons of plastic water bottles were recycled. But rather than be proud of that enormous number, Evanoff says it would be better to see that figure shrink with more people carrying refillable bottles. "We have a short amount of time to educate people; the average stay of visitor is 1.5 days. But we are on track to hit 90 percent diversion by next year."

Necessity is the Mother of Recycling

When recyclables hit the concrete floor of Yellowstone’s facility (as big as two football fields) one thing stood out—those one pound propane cylinders people use as camp stoves. Evanoff says visitors trash hundreds of them each week all containing some level of explosive greenhouse gas. The problem—there was no way to recycle them. Undaunted, they set to work developing the first-ever propane container recycling program in the world. It starts with in a trailer that purges the propane, which then powers a generator and compressor that punctures and flattens the cylinder which can then be recycled as raw steel. It’s an elegant closed loop system that spawned a similar effort to recycle bear repellent spray.

Would You Like Fries with That?

It began as fuel for just one truck. But now the some 10,000 gallons of used cooking oil generated by park concessioners is used to create biodiesel that powers everything from hundreds of unmodified vehicles to boilers in Yellowstone. The gallons of oil that used to be hauled to the landfill now equal a savings of 600 tons of CO2. Yes, the exhaust smells like French fries. No, the grizzlies in the area aren’t attracted to the scent. Evanoff says in the continued effort to separate humans and bears fuel samples were taken to Washington State University’s family of captive bears. After piping truck fumes into the cages, scientists concluded the bears didn’t care for the smell.

Road Rules

Don Baldwin knows tires—and their potential impact on a fragile ecosystem. That’s why as director of Fuel Efficient Truck Tires at Michelin North America, Baldwin’s work with Yellowstone has already had a tremendous effect on the park. The initial study for YES! identified a substantial savings in emissions by improving fuel efficiency and Michelin’s assortment of fuel efficient tires were just the ticket for Yellowstone’s fleet of more than 500 vehicles. Baldwin says the objective for the initial phase of the project was 4 percent of fuel savings but the tires were already clocking a 20 percent savings on a small number of trucks. Now between 60-70 vehicles are sporting Michelin X1s or other efficient tires. Baldwin says this was done deliberately as the company didn’t want to replace every tire wholesale. And he notes, a retreading effort is underway to help Yellowstone’s objective of keeping waste out of the landfill. An unexpected bonus: the tires have improved traction on rough and icy roads, and they are lasting two seasons instead of just one.

Sustainable Souvenirs

For Beth Pratt, director of Environmental Affairs at Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the greening of For Future Generations Yellowstone Gifts was a personal passion, "We are trying to do infuse sustainability in everything we do from transport and lodging to food. But how do we get our guests and employees to be greener in their own lives?" The answer was a sweeping educational campaign that grew from brochures in the hotel rooms to sustainability score cards for every product in the souvenir shop. The result, says Pratt, "The store has had a lot of success in a down economy.” That’s encouraging considering displays are not about sales, they are about climate change and merchandise is scored based on 16 factors including organic and local. “Now a consumer is confronted with impact of a dollar difference on a product." So far consumers are making the right choices as the average sale in the store has gone up - evidence that people are purchasing the more expensive sustainable items. But even if they don’t buy anything, Pratt says they’ll still get something. "You can’t walk out without learning something."