Hot springs in Yellowstone National Park have claimed 22 lives since 1890, far more than have been killed by grizzly bears or lightning strikes. ©John T. Andrews

Hot springs in Yellowstone National Park have claimed 22 lives since 1890, far more than have been caused by grizzly bears or lightning strikes. ©John T. Andrews

It seems so simple. If there’s a sign warning you of danger and to “Keep Out,” you should.

So how does a 23-year-old, college graduate—who had worked at a nature preserve in Oregon and was familiar with the concept of preserving and protecting natural landscapes—walk 225 yards off the boardwalks near Yellowstone National Park’s fragile Norris Geyser Basin and burn to death?

Was it because the thermal pools are entrancing and so enticing that he couldn’t resist? Was it because he wanted to get a better photo or selfie for social media? Or did he simply believe, like so many people in our wild places lately, that the rules did not apply to him?

And, what should the National Park Service do to protect us from ourselves in our most beautiful places?

Breaking bad in Yellowstone

Since 1888, rangers have posted warning signs at Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs; and since then, some have  ignored them. To help with that problem, a system of boarded walkways was built in the 1960s that would allow people to safely see the geothermal features without harming the delicate ecosystem. Unfortunately, off-trail wandering persisted.

More than five decades ago, boardwalks were built in the park to protect people and the geothermal features. ©John T. Andrews

More than five decades ago, boardwalks were built in the park to protect people and the geothermal features. ©John T. Andrews

We don’t have to go back decades, however, to find a string of instances where visitors have flaunted park regulations. All we have to do is look at what happened a month ago. According to a June 8, 2016, article in USA Today, this year has already seen several instances of bad and unsafe tourist behavior in Yellowstone:

• In mid April 2016, a tourist approached within arm’s length of an adult bison in the Old Faithful area and petted it. The event was captured on a video that went viral. The bison, which was lying down, reared up but did not charge. The animal, in my opinion, showed a lot of restraint.

• On May 9, 2016, a Canadian man and his son violated park rules by loading a bison calf into their car out of concern it needed help. The bison was later euthanized because of that human contact.

• In mid May 2016, a group of young Canadian tourists walked onto the sensitive Grand Prismatic Spring, filming their exploits for social media and an online adventure series. They snapped selfies and dipped their hands into water that can reach the boiling point.

• In May 2016, a woman approached within a few feet of a cow elk, which charged her. She was unharmed.

Some ignore the park’s warning signs. ©MyYellowstonePark.com

Some ignore the park’s warning signs. ©MyYellowstonePark.com

That list would be longer, of course, if you expand it out just a few years. In 2014, a tourist from the Netherlands paid a fine of $1,000, as well as $2,200 in restitution, after crashing a drone into the Grand Prismatic Spring. Later that year, a German tourist was fined $1,600 and banned from the park for a year after crashing a drone into Yellowstone Lake.

Narcissism, social media or just plain human curiosity?

Clearly, social media—with its siren call for bigger, better and more daring photos—is fueling a lack of regard for rules everywhere. But other factors could be playing a role, too. Narcissism and the age-old lure of nature come to mind.

Narcissists believe that they can cut into a line where others are waiting, cheat on their taxes and ignore rules that get in the way of doing what they want. Since narcissists see themselves as above others, rules don’t apply to them; they are for other people to follow. Studies show that we are living in an increasingly narcissist society. Facebook must take part of the blame for that, surely, but so must a currently popular parenting style that, among other things, lavishly praises children for skills not mastered and talents they do not possess.

Some say, however, that people exhibiting bad behavior around the geological features of Yellowstone might simply be caused by the allure of those features themselves. The waters of the hot springs are hued and tinted in unearthly colors: vibrant blues, rich greens, bright yellows and deep oranges. They resemble cosmic nebulas filled with fascinating mysteries, drawing visitors off the boardwalks and marked pathways to stand on their rims and take a closer look.

Will we eventually have to wall off Yellowstone to protect it and us? ©Sean Beckett

Will we eventually have to wall off Yellowstone to protect it and us? ©Sean Beckett

Ignoring the sign of the falling boy

One of the signs that warned visitors not to stray from the boardwalks that surrounded the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park pictured an illustration of a boy falling through the thin crust and a woman pointing in horror. Yet, such graphics don’t appear to be enough to keep people from walking onto the geothermal features. The National Park Service recently issued a new statement about safety. But will we all pay attention?

I’m afraid not. Perhaps the answer is to construct plexiglass domes over the boardwalks, so that people must trek through transparent tunnels in order to observe the natural phenomena, keeping them on a safe path and saving them from themselves.

Or maybe we just accept that some of us, through our bad decisions, will always die in Yellowstone.

If bad behavior continues to increase in Yellowstone National Park, what measures do you think we should take to protect the landscapes and the people who visit?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy