Governance by government: Yellowstone National Park (USA)

Harvey Locke

Yellowstone is one of the most famous national parks in the world and a model of a protected area managed by a government body. Yellowstone's management system as it has evolved since 1872 is interesting not only for this important park but also as an archetype of how the management of national parks evolves over time.

Location and World Heritage designation

Yellowstone National Park is the world's first national park (though not the first protected area) and was in the initial group of the five first natural sites inscribed on the World Heritage List.  It is a large park in the Rocky Mountains, square in shape, with most of its 900,000 ha area located in the State of Wyoming, USA, with small but significant edges in Idaho and Montana. World Heritage criteria (vii) through (x) are met in an exemplary fashion:  beauty and natural phenomena including half of the world's geothermal features, a magnificent canyon, important stages of earth's history especially relating to volcanism, ecological and biological processes of major significance (including exceptionally abundant and observable wildlife which includes the full range of carnivores native to the system and diverse ungulate prey base), and natural habitat representative of biological diversity including montane Douglas fir savannahs and the headwaters of the longest undammed river in the United States. Yellowstone is both a global icon of the national park and an exemplar of the large national park which is an important land use in western North America.

Main ecosystem services provided by the site

Yellowstone NP is the headwaters for the two largest river systems of the western United States: the Missouri- Mississippi and the Snake-Columbia. The Snake River is the source of freshwater for domestic consumption and irrigation for the largest part of the Idaho potato industry which is the largest potato producing region in the US.  The Missouri provides irrigation and freshwater for most of the state of Montana. The 1,114 km long Yellowstone River (which joins the Missouri) is the longest undammed river in the United States which provides vital natural processes for native fish and riparian species. Yellowstone Lake located entirely within the national park is the largest lake at high elevation (2,357 m) in North America and has exceptional water quality (

Carbon is stored in park soils and forests. The park is an important natural control for the study of climate change. Ecosystem production and carbon fluxes in the Yellowstone region over the next century will likely reflect complex relationships between climate, forest age structure, and disturbance-recovery patterns of the landscape, plus management policies for large grazing herbivores and their predators (Genovese, 2011). Recent increases in fire activity suggest climate warming and associated alterations to hydrology are already changing disturbance regimes (Kashian et al., 2013).

Yellowstone is one of the premier ecotourism destinations in the western United States and draws visitors from around the world (3,188,030 visitors in 2013).  Eighty-eight percent of visitors are American (2011). The international visitors' origins are 27% from Canada, 11% from the United Kingdom, 10% from France, 10% from Germany, Netherlands 9%, 7% from China and the rest from other parts of Europe. Most visitors come in summer (June, July and August). There are no day-use limits and lodging and campgrounds in the park can accommodate about 14,300 visitors during the summer. There is significant additional supply of lodging and camping facilities in the gateway communities located outside the park (Gardiner and West Yellowstone in Montana, and Cody and Jackson in Wyoming). For all its popularity the park still offers wilderness solitude on an extensive network of backcountry trails and the Thorofare area of the park is the wildest and most remote place from a road in the lower 48 States. In 2010 45,045 people camped in the park's wilderness (; Kulesza et al., 2012a).

There are eleven native fish species. Recreational fishing is a popular activity in the park and is now managed to support native species restoration. Anglers must keep non-native fish and native fish must be released. Yellowstone has three of the four known pure wild populations of native Westslope Cuttthroat Trout that remain in the US and there are reintroduction efforts underway. There is one lake-based population of Arctic grayling.

The direct economic benefits are associated with tourism and park jobs. The Park's 3, 188,030 visitors in 2013 spent $382,000, 000 in local and non-local spending which supported 5,300 jobs.  Fifty one percent of the parks economic impact from ecotourism is realized in Montana and forty nine percent in Wyoming.  There are 550 total park staff (in summer there are 850 positions) and the Park's annual operating budget is $34 million. In addition, the park combined with its relative proximity to airports and attractive communities has given rise to a significant amenities–based economy that has driven most of the job growth in the region for the last twenty years (Cullinane et al., 2014).

Governance and management system

The Yellowstone National Park Act 1872 created the Park and dedicated it as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people and protected the scenic and geological wonders; the Yellowstone Game Protection Act of 1894 then protected the Park's wildlife (except dangerous animals which were protected in 1931); the Park then became managed for future generations by the newly created US National Park Service under the Organic Act of 1916. The overall effect is that first, Yellowstone like all US national parks must be maintained in unimpaired form for the use of future generations as well as those of our own time; second, it is set apart for the use, observation, health, pleasure, and inspiration of the people; and third, the national interest must dictate all decisions affecting public or private enterprise in the parks.

The National Park Service's Call to Action 2013 promotes large landscape conservation to support healthy ecosystems and cultural resources.  There are also park specific rules and regulations designed to protect ecosystem services while allowing for visitor use (

The Park's Yellowstone Centre for Resources was created in March 1993 to centralize the park's science and resource management functions. It monitors the Park's ecosystem vital signs including ecosystem drivers, environmental quality, native species, stressors and cultural resources and publishes the findings periodically and employs between 100-150 staff including seasonal, temporary and permanent employees (Yellowstone Center for Resources, 2013).  Overall, there are 550 total park staff (in summer there are 850 positions).

The existing management system of the Yellowstone National Park has been efficient in protecting important natural processes and the flow of ecosystem services which results in significant benefits to local, regional and global beneficiaries. The site provides economic benefits in the range of half a billion dollars to its region and country and supports a robust amenities based-economy in adjacent areas. Through direct visitation it inspires over three million visitors a year and through its existence enriches the lives of the people of the United States and the entire world.