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People love going outside, but they don’t love the side effects of having a lot of people go outside — crowded parking lots, overflowing trash cans, worn trails.

But, as towns like Bozeman grow, the pressure on public lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will only increase. That pressure is forcing land managers to try to balance preservation with the glut of users — hikers, bikers, climbers and many others.

“There are more of us in more places doing more things,” said Scott Christensen, the conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “The crux of this question is how do we keep this place like it is ... and still get outside?”

Christensen spoke Monday at “Our Shared Place,” a summit organized by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The summit, which continues Tuesday, is meant to explore that question and look for solutions that preserve the Yellowstone region’s public lands while providing for recreation.

The first day included presentations from a few different recreationists, ranging from a rock climber to a dirt biker. Land managers, scientists and an economist spoke, too, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock made an appearance.

The conference comes at a time of increased visitation to the region’s public lands. Yellowstone National Park has counted more than 4 million visits in each of the last three years — the previous record was a little more than 3.6 million. Meanwhile, the Custer Gallatin National Forest saw a 39 percent increase in visitation from 2008 to 2013, according to Wendi Urie, the forest’s Bozeman district recreation manager.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition studied where recreation is happening around the ecosystem. Brooke Regan, the coalition’s special projects organizer, said they found that the busiest areas were near the region’s large towns and places with recreational infrastructure — trails, campgrounds. They also found that some of those areas intersected with important wildlife corridors.

But, she said, available data on the subject is sparse, which creates a challenge for land managers searching for solutions.

“This matters because it means that land managers are having to make decisions about recreation on very little data and a lot of anecdotal evidence,” Regan said.

Yellowstone released a pair of visitor use studies in 2017, and Christina White, the park’s outdoor recreation planner, said they plan to gather more data. She said they want to know more about how people are moving through the region and how park visitation impacts the areas outside its borders.

She said they see impacts from having more people in the park, and that all options for dealing with the crowds are on the table. But how best to set limits on recreation will be a challenging question both inside and outside the park.

“I think that’s a conversation that we need to have more broadly,” White said. “I think the best way to do that is start figuring out what we know and what we don’t know and start talking to our partners.”

The ecosystem is also facing pressure from climate change. Increased temperatures and changes in precipitation have already had impacts, including a shift in when peak runoff arrives on area rivers.

Cathy Whitlock, a professor at Montana State University, said the trends are going to continue. Winters are expected to get shorter and summers are expected to get longer.

That may sound pleasant to those who dislike snow, but Whitlock said longer summers will have another impact.

“That’s going to bring more visitors, more climate change refugees coming to Greater Yellowstone to get away from the heat,” she said.

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Michael Wright can be reached at or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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