With Yellowstone closed, tourist towns worry about what’s next

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Business owners in tourist towns fear closure could be a death sentence

The Yellowstone River rushes through the town of Gardiner, Montana days after the river flooded to historic levels.  Restaurants and many businesses are closed.  (Photos by Louise Johns for The Washington Post)
The Yellowstone River rushes through the town of Gardiner, Montana days after the river flooded to historic levels. Restaurants and many businesses are closed. (Photos by Louise Johns for The Washington Post)

Before the disaster, Rebecca Stoneberger was preparing for the start of the summer tourist season. She had just lengthened the hours of Bear teahis cafe in Gardiner, Montana, a gateway town on the edge of Yellowstone National Park.

Last week, historic flooding from torrential rains and excessive snowmelt caused the Yellowstone River to swell to record levels within hours. Stoneberger watched helplessly with his community as floods swept through his neighbor’s building, a structure housing families working for Yellowstone National Park. Shortly after, Jeff Reed saw this same building floating in front of his lodging business, reed fly farmdownstream from Paradise Valley.

Gardiner “is a town in Yellowstone. It lives and dies by tourism, and it’s going to be a pretty big hit.

— Bill Berg, Park County Commissioner

The damage was so deep that they shut down the entire park. Park Superintendent Cam Sholly told a news conference he believes this is the first time in Yellowstone’s 150-year history that a flood has forced it to close.

More than three decades ago, the park closed due to forest fires. Sholly said Tuesday that the south loop could reopen as soon as next week, where visitors can access Old Faithful Geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring and other famous Yellowstone sites. But the devastation of the North Loop and its entrances to Gardiner and Cooke City has caused the greatest uncertainty, not just for park visitors, but for communities that depend on tourism.

Everything Visitors Need to Know About the Yellowstone Closure

Gardiner “is a town in Yellowstone,” Park County Commissioner Bill Berg said at a news conference. “It lives and dies by tourism, and it’s going to be a pretty big hit.” Early talks suggest repairing the roads could take up to 24 months.

“The news we all get today” is that “it could take a year, two years. Everyone here should be prepared for 24 months of tough times,” said Victor Kaufman, owner of The cowboy’s lodge and gate and partner of Iron Horse Bar & Grill in Gardiner, after a community meeting.

For those involved, it felt like an act of God. “What we’ve been through for the past few years is almost biblical. We’ve had the plague and then the flood,” said Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs at Emigrant in Paradise Valley, located halfway between Livingston and Gardiner.

“It’s like, what’s the next disaster? Guess we’re all waiting for the plague of locusts,” echoed Tim Weamer, director of marketing at the Chamber of Commerce in Red Lodge, a Yellowstone town at the end of the scenic Beartooth Highway. Aerial images of the Lamar Valley and between Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner show that much of the roads are damaged or missing, making the northern part of the park inaccessible.

A town is cut off by massive flooding outside a closed Yellowstone

As the Montana National Guard deployed to the Yellowstone area, the Biden administration approved the Montana Disaster Declaration and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials arrived to begin assessing the damage. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (right) was out of the country on a personal trip, leaving Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras to sign the statement as “acting governor.” He returned to meet with business leaders and survey the damage on Friday.

According to a report from National Park Service.

Since then, attendance at Yellowstone has only increased. Gardiner is particularly tied to the fate of the park, and Kaufman estimates his businesses are more than 95% dependent on tourists passing through town to access Yellowstone.

Kaufman said several of his larger hotels have already closed and laid off staff and refunded guests. He fears the shutdown could be a death sentence for Gardiner. “At this time of year, every business owner is hugely in debt, and these repayments are making everyone insolvent,” Kaufman said. “If we don’t get help, this town could die.”

In Cooke City and Silver Gate, the northeast gateway cities of Yellowtone, Max Waugh, wildlife photographer and owner of the Silver Willow Huts, is also already feeling the impact of having the isolated region completely cut off by the floods. “We are now up to seven cancellations in the first 48 hours. About $13,700 in lost revenue so far,” he said. The only way to access Cooke City and Silver Gate in the winter is via the North Park Road.

Adjusting to the physical and financial losses, tourism stakeholders in the region are also considering the long-term impact. Although fly-fishing guide Doug McKnight expects to be back on the Yellowstone River by July, once the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks gives the go-ahead, he worries about the impact the natural disaster could have on the overall ecosystem that sustains the fish. and their food.

“Anytime we have water like this where there’s a washout of the river bed” it “can be very hard on insects,” McKnight said, adding that fish populations could be lower for a few years. But he will not admit defeat. It will rely on resilience and creativity.

“I am optimistic for fishing. This could be a dormant year to fish Yellowstone. There will most definitely be a little less traffic here, which on the river, it never hurts if you’re a fly fishing guide and want to bring your clients some solitude and some really good fishing” , did he declare. .

Wildlife viewing guide Cara McGary, who operates In Our Nature tours out of Gardiner, intends his business to still be around when the park returns to normal. “My plans were definitely dashed,” she said. “But there are still opportunities. These may not be opportunities that can be achieved using the route between Gardiner and Mammoth.

“I want to express my gratitude to our visitors who are able to show compassion, grace and patience with us as we find out what has happened in the world and how we will deal with it.”

— Cara McGary, Wildlife Viewing Guide

One idea she has is to leverage her forest service permits by showing guests the park when it reopens. Meanwhile, Stoneberger will continue to run his newly opened cafe. She plans to make sure workers rebuilding Yellowstone’s roads are caffeinated and well-fed.

Many in Yellowstone’s tourism industry are asking potential guests to consider taking credit for future travel instead of a refund and to be kind to locals while they deal with the disaster. “I want to express my gratitude to our visitors who are able to show compassion, grace and patience with us as we find out what happened in the world and how we will deal with it,” McGary said. .

In the Glacier National Park region of northwest Montana, which is also experiencing flooding, the tourist board shares similar sentiments. “While we sympathize with the travelers whose plans had to be altered, we humbly ask you to remember that the homes and livelihoods of many Montananese have been devastatingly affected by this.”

This declaration came as travelers left one star reviews on local businesses as their plans were cut short by the floods. In Paradise Valley, a business coalition formed by Reed points out that the area is open to visitors and there is much to explore. “There is still a lot to do in 22,” he jokes.

He sees this as an opportunity to integrate Gardiner into the Paradise Valley ecosystem by ensuring that city guides and outfitters are hired for their visitors. At Red Lodge, Weamer shared plans to invest marketing funds in local tourism. “There are a lot of reasons Montanans come to Red Lodge,” Weamer said.

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