Before the disaster, Rebecca Stoneberger was preparing for the start of summer tourism season. She had just expanded the hours at Bears Brew, her coffee shop in Gardiner, Mont., a gateway town on the edge of Yellowstone National Park.
Gardiner “is a Yellowstone town. It lives and dies by tourism, and this is going to be a pretty big hit.”— Bill Berg, Park County Commissioner
The damage has been so profound that it closed the entire park. Park superintendent Cam Sholly said in a news conference he believes it is the first time in the 150-year history of Yellowstone that a flood has forced it to shut down.
More than three decades ago, the park closed for wildfires. Sholly said Tuesday that the southern loop could reopen as soon as next week, where visitors can access Old Faithful geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring and other famous Yellowstone sites. But devastation to the northern loop and its entrances in Gardiner and Cooke City have caused the greatest uncertainty, not only for park visitors, but for the communities that depend on tourism.
Gardiner “is a Yellowstone town,” said Park County Commissioner Bill Berg during a news conference. “It lives and dies by tourism, and this is going to be a pretty big hit.” Early discussions suggest repairing the roads could take up to 24 months.
“The news that we’re all getting today” is that “it could be one year, two years. Everybody here should be prepared for 24 months of tough times,” said Victor Kaufman, owner of Cowboy’s Lodge and Grille and partner of the Iron Horse Bar & Grill in Gardiner, after a community meeting.
For those affected, this has felt like an act of God. “What we’ve been through the last couple years, it’s almost biblical. We’ve had the plague, and then the flood,” said Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs in Emigrant in Paradise Valley, located about halfway between Livingston and Gardiner.
“It’s like, what’s the next disaster? I guess we’re all waiting for the plague of locusts,” echoed Tim Weamer, marketing director at the Chamber of Commerce for Red Lodge, a Yellowstone town at the end of the scenic Beartooth Highway. Aerial footage of the Lamar Valley and between Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner shows much of the roads are damaged or gone, making the northern part of the park inaccessible.
While the Montana National Guard deployed around the Yellowstone region, the Biden administration approved the Montana Disaster Declaration and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials arrived to begin assessing the damage. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) was out of the country on a personal trip, leaving Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras to sign the declaration as “acting governor.” He returned to meet with business leaders and survey damage Friday.
Tourism to Yellowstone, which constitutes roughly 1 million visitors a month in the summer, supported 7,000 jobs in the area and $642 million to the local economy in 2019, according to a report from the National Park Service.
Since then, Yellowstone visitation has only increased. Gardiner is especially tied to the fate of the park, and Kaufman estimates that his businesses are more than 95 percent reliant on the tourists that come through the town to access Yellowstone.
Kaufman said several of its largest hotels have already shut down and laid off their staff and refunded guests. He fears the closure could be a death sentence for Gardiner. “At this time of the year, every business owner is extremely leveraged and these refunds are making everyone insolvent,” Kaufman said. “If we don’t get assistance, this town could die.”
In Cooke City and Silver Gate, the northeast gate towns of Yellowtone, Max Waugh, a wildlife photographer and owner of the Silver Willows Cabins, is also already feeling the impact of having the isolated region completely cut off by the flooding. “We’re now up to seven cancellations in the first 48 hours. About $13,700 in revenue lost so far,” he said. The only way to access Cooke City and Silver Gate during winter is through the north road of the park.
Amid adjusting to the physical and financial losses, tourism stakeholders in the area are also considering the impact in the long term. Though 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 all clear, he is concerned about how the natural disaster could impact the overall ecosystem that supports the fish and their food.
“Whenever we have water like this where there is a scouring of the riverbed” it “can be very tough on the insects,” McKnight said, adding that fish populations might be lower for a few years. But he won’t concede defeat. He’ll rely on resiliency and creativity.
“I’m optimistic on fishing. It could be a sleeper year to fish the Yellowstone. There will most certainly be a little bit less traffic over here, which on the river, that never hurts if you’re a fly-fishing guide, and you want to get your clients into some solitude and some really good fishing,” he said.
Wildlife watching guide Cara McGary, who operates In Our Nature tours out of Gardiner, intends for her business to still be around when the park returns to normal. “My plans have certainly been washed out,” she said. “But there are still opportunities. They just might not be opportunities that can be realized by using the road between Gardiner and Mammoth.”
“I want to express gratitude for our visitors who are able to exercise compassion and grace and patience with us as we figure out what in the world has happened, and how we’re going to manage it.”— Cara McGary, wildlife watching guide
One idea she has is to put her Forest Service permits to use by showing guests the park when it reopens. Meanwhile, Stoneberger will keep running her newly opened coffee shop. She plans to make sure the workers who rebuild the roads in Yellowstone are caffeinated and well fed.
Many in the Yellowstone tourism industry are asking would-be guests to consider taking a credit for a future trip instead of a refund and to be kind to locals as they process the disaster. “I want to express gratitude for our visitors who are able to exercise compassion and grace and patience with us as we figure out what in the world has happened, and how we’re going to manage it,” McGary said.
In the area of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, which is also experiencing flooding, the tourism board shares similar sentiments. “Although we empathize with travelers whose plans have had to be altered, we humbly request you remember that many Montanans’ homes and livelihoods have been devastatingly impacted by this.”
This statement came as travelers left one-star reviews of local businesses as their plans been interrupted by the flooding. In Paradise Valley, a business coalition formed by Reed is emphasizing the region is open for visitors, and there is plenty to explore. “Lot’s still to do in ‘22,” he quips.
He sees it as an opportunity to incorporate Gardiner into the Paradise Valley ecosystem by making sure guides and outfitters from the town are hired for their visitors. In Red Lodge, Weamer shared plans to put marketing funds toward local tourism. “There’s a lot of reasons for Montanans to come to Red Lodge,” Weamer said.