By Neala Fugere
Far from the paved roads and drive-through entrance gates of more developed areas, the Bechler region is tucked away in the park’s southwest corner. This region can be difficult to get to, often requires overnight travel, and is generally associated with a sense of wilderness and solitude. Visitors have been drawn to it for activities like backpacking, fishing, and horse pack trips.
Although the region may have once offered a remote wilderness experience in a park that grapples with more than 4 million visits a year, Bechler, too, is beginning to see changes, according to Bechler District Ranger Dave Ross.
“Bechler has changed considerably from the time I started working there in 1989,” Ross says. “A lot of homes are appearing in multiple areas around the region. More and more people are finding themselves on Bechler’s doorstep.”
This development in nearby towns—Driggs, Tetonia, Rexburg, Idaho Falls, and Ashton—has resulted in a significant increase in day use, Ross explains. Day hikers and stock users are on the rise, and Ross is concerned day-use visitors may not be as up-to-speed about wilderness travel as overnight users, who are required to check in with the backcountry ranger station before heading out.
Ross worries that as one of the more remote areas in Yellowstone, Bechler is not designed to handle the increase in visitation, and he fears for the area’s natural resources—which include several species of unique and endangered plants. Limited infrastructure and park staff, coupled with a sharp increase in visitation, have already resulted in impacts to this fragile area. Noticeable damage, Ross says, includes stock impacts to trails and trees used to tie up horses. Even more obvious is the cropping up of social trails—human-caused trails that deviate from the designated, maintained network.
To get a better idea of the changing scene in the Bechler area, Natural Resource Management Specialist Sue Mills, with the help of Lead Technician for Backcountry Monitoring and Resource Impacts Amanda Bramblett, is currently gathering baseline information on visitation and resource impacts. Their work includes analyzing soil erosion and changes to vegetation, assessing stock and visitor use numbers, and partnering with rangers to identify and map social trails and other impacts.
We examine physical impacts in the backcountry to give data-driven science to park managers,” Bramblett explains. “The goal is to be able to show change over time in a given area to help them make sound decisions.”
The team began collecting data in the Bechler region in 2014 and is projected to continue for several more years. Preliminary results, Mills says, have taken them by surprise. “For a remote and mostly undeveloped area, we’re receiving a lot more use than anticipated,” she says. “It’s an area in transition.”
Social trails, Bramblett’s area of focus and one of the primary issues the resource specialists have identified, have the potential to cause more damage to the area than visitors may realize. “Veering off the designated trail can fragment wildlife habitat, create erosion, and introduce invasive plants,” Bramblett explains. “Once you turn the ground up, you leave it more vulnerable to nonnative species moving in.”
As the area’s district ranger, Ross has witnessed impacts relating to social trails firsthand. Anglers seeking out fishing holes are partly responsible for the issue, but the most significant impacts have come from hikers exploring Bechler’s waterfalls and warm springs—some of the major draws to the area. “The falls have really been discovered,” he says. “The added impact of concentrated use in these sensitive areas is a major concern.”
Ross, Mills, and Bramblett all agree it’s important to stay ahead of these impacts— before the area changes beyond recognition. Ross identifies the need for a comprehensive management plan that includes increased visitor education and law enforcement support. He also cites the need to rehabilitate existing social trails, as opposed to making them designated, maintained trails, which might make it easier for visitors to access sensitive areas.
Ross and Mills both agree how park managers will go about protecting Bechler all comes down to why areas like this deserve protection. Bechler offers a much different experience than front country areas like Old Faithful, Ross says, and he feels it’s an experience worth preserving.
“The visitors to this area value Bechler for wilderness, but also for the solitude,” he says. “I think it’s in our best interest to try and preserve this sense of discovery for people.”
“We need places that have retained their mystery—that are a little more difficult to get to,” says Mills. “Otherwise, we’ve lost something really special.”