Cities at the gateway to Yellowstone Park fret over the future of tourism

RED LODGE, Mont. – A nagging uncertainty hung over the gateway town of Gardiner to Yellowstone National Park this week after unprecedented flooding crippled one of America’s most popular natural attractions and swept away roads, bridges and homes.

Gardiner itself escaped the floods, but briefly became home to hundreds of parkgoers who were stranded when the road leading there along the surging Yellowstone River was closed. When the road reopened, the tourists disappeared.

“The city is spooky right now,” said Katie Gale, who books with a company that offers rafting and other outdoor tours. “We had all these people locked in here, and as soon as they opened up the road … it was like someone just unplugged a bathtub.”

This churn of visitors has become a major concern for businesses in towns like Gardiner and Red Lodge, which lead to Yellowstone’s northern entrances and rely on transiting tourists.

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Officials have said the southern portion of the park, where Old Faithful can be seen, could reopen as soon as next week. But the north end, which includes Tower Fall and the bears and wolves of the Lamar Valley, could remain closed for months after parts of the main roads within Yellowstone were washed away or buried by rockfall. Roads leading to the park also show widespread damage that can take months to repair.

Red Lodge faces a double catastrophe: it must clean up the damage the deluge did to parts of the city, and also figure out how to survive without the summer business that it normally sustains for the rest of the year.

“Winters are tough at Red Lodge,” Chris Prindiville said as he squirted mud off the sidewalk outside his shuttered cafe, which had no fresh water or gas for its stoves. “You have to make your money in the summer so you can get through it even when the bills come and the visitors stop.”

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At least 88 people have been rescued from campgrounds and small towns by the Montana National Guard over the past few days, and muddy water has damaged hundreds of homes, including nearly 150 at Red Lodge. A large house in the town of Gardiner, home to six park employees, was ripped from its foundations and floated 5 miles (8 kilometers) downstream before sinking. According to a Stillwater County spokeswoman, four to five more homes could fall into the Stillwater River, which has already washed away several homes.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

Red Lodge had a water-boiling recommendation, and trucks provided potable water to half of the town that had no water. Portable toilets were strategically placed for those unable to flush at home.

The Yodeler Motel, once home to Finnish miners, was facing its first closure since it began operating as a lodge in 1964. Owner Mac Dean said he will have to gut the lower level, where 13 rooms were flooded in chest-deep water.

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“Rock Creek seemed to take its own course,” he said. “It just jumped the bank and came straight down Main Street and hit us.”

Dean had anticipated a busy summer tied to the park’s 150th anniversary. The yodel had the most bookings in the 13 years that Dean and his wife ran the business. Now he is hoping for help, possibly from the Federal Office for Disaster Control.

“The damage is catastrophic,” he said. “We are between a rock and a hard place. And if we don’t get help, we won’t make it.”

Yellowstone is one of the park system’s crown jewels, a popular summer playground that appeals to adventurous backpackers camping in grizzly country, casual hikers passing by steaming geothermal features, nature lovers viewing moose, bison, bears and wolves from the safety of their own cars , amateur photographers and artists trying to capture the pink and gold hues of the cliffs of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and its thundering waterfall.

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All 4 million annual visitors have to pass through the small towns bordering the park’s five entrances.

The flooding — triggered by a combination of torrential rain and rapid snowmelt — hit as hotels around Yellowstone were filling up with summer tourists. June is typically one of the busiest months in Yellowstone.

President Joe Biden declared a disaster in Montana and ordered federal aid provided.

The tourism season had started well for Cara McGary, who leads groups through the Lamar Valley to see wolves, bison, moose and bears. She had seen more than 20 grizzly bears some days this year.

Now that the road from Gardiner to northern Yellowstone has been washed out, the wildlife is still there, but beyond McGary’s reach. Your guide company In Our Nature is suddenly in trouble.

“The summer we’ve been preparing for is nothing like the summer we’re going to have,” she said. “That’s an 80 to 100 percent loss of business during the peak season.”

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Officials and business leaders hope Gardiner, Red Lodge and other small communities can attract visitors without access to the park.

Sarah Ondrus, owner of Paradise Adventure Company, which rents cabins and offers rafting, kayaking and horseback riding trips, was frustrated at receiving so many cancellations.

“Montana and Wyoming still exist. I don’t know how to convince these people,” Ondrus said. “Once our water quality is good and our law enforcement thinks it’s okay, we’ll be good to go again. It’s still a goal. You can still go horseback riding, go to cowboy cookouts, and hike in the National Forest.”

That could be a big challenge for anyone coming from the south or east side of the park and hoping to get out on the north. After the southern portion of the park reopens, it would require a nearly 200-mile (320-kilometer) detour through West Yellowstone and Bozeman to reach Gardiner. It would require driving nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers) from Cody, Wyoming.

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Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, faced criticism from Democrats and members of the public for being out of the country during the disaster.

Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said the governor left with his wife last week for a long-planned personal trip and will return on Thursday. For security reasons, she declined to say where he was.

In his absence, Lt. gov. Kristen Juras of Montana issued an emergency disaster declaration on Tuesday.

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Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Brittany Peterson in Red Lodge, Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/17/yellowstone-park-gateway-towns-fret-about-tourism-future/ Cities at the gateway to Yellowstone Park fret over the future of tourism

Sarah Y. Kim

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