Yellowstone Park’s gateway cities worry about the future of tourism

By MATTHEW BROWN and BRIAN MELLEY
Associated press

RED LODGE, Mt. (AP) – Uncertainty gnawed at Yellowstone National Park’s gateway town of Gardiner this week following unprecedented flooding that shut down one of America’s most beloved natural attractions and washed away visitors. roads, bridges and houses.

Gardiner itself escaped flooding but briefly became home to hundreds of stranded park visitors when the road to it was closed along the Yellowstone River. When the road reopened, the tourists disappeared.

“The city is weird right now,” said Katie Gale, who makes reservations for a company that offers rafting and other outdoor excursions. “We had all these people trapped here, and as soon as they opened the road…it was like someone had just pulled the plug on a bathtub.”

This evacuation of visitors has become a major concern for businesses in towns such as Gardiner and Red Lodge that lead to Yellowstone’s northern entrances and rely on passing tourists.

Officials said the southern part of the park, which includes Old Faithful, could reopen as early as next week. But the north end, which includes Tower Fall and the bears and wolves of Lamar Valley, could remain closed for months after sections of major roads inside Yellowstone were washed away or buried under rockfall. Roads leading to the park have also suffered extensive damage that could take months to repair.

Red Lodge faces a double disaster: it will have to clean up flood damage in parts of town and figure out how to survive without the summer activities that normally sustain it for the rest of the year.

“Winters are harsh at Red Lodge,” Chris Prindiville said as he hosed down mud from 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 make it when the bills keep coming in and the visitors have stopped.”

At least 88 people have been rescued by the Montana National Guard in recent days at campsites and small towns, and hundreds of homes, including nearly 150 at Red Lodge, have been damaged by muddy waters. A large house that housed six park workers in the town of Gardiner was torn from its foundation and floated 8 kilometers downstream before sinking. Four to five homes could still topple into the Stillwater River, which has already washed away several cabins, according to a Stillwater County spokeswoman.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

Red Lodge was under a boil water advisory, and trucks delivered drinking water to half the town that didn’t have it. Portable toilets were strategically placed for those unable to flush the toilet at home.

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

“Rock Creek seemed to run its own course,” he said. “He just broke the bank and he went straight down Main Street and he hit us.”

Dean was counting on a busy summer tied to the park’s 150th anniversary. The Yodeler has had the most bookings in the 13 years that Dean and his wife have owned the business. Now he hopes to get help, perhaps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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

All 4 million visitors a year must pass through the small towns that line the park’s five entrances.

The flooding – triggered by a combination of torrential rains and rapid snowmelt – hit just as hotels around Yellowstone filled with summer tourists. June is usually one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.

President Joe Biden has declared a disaster in Montana, ordering the availability of federal aid.

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

Now, with the road from Gardiner north of Yellowstone washed out, the wildlife is still there, but it’s out of McGary’s reach. His guiding business, In Our Nature, is suddenly in trouble.

“The summer we’ve been preparing for is not at all like the summer we’re going to have,” she said. “It’s an 80% to 100% loss of business during peak season.”

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

Sarah Ondrus, owner of Paradise Adventure Company, which rents cabins and offers rafting, kayaking and horseback riding tours, was frustrated to receive so many cancellations.

“Montana and Wyoming still exist. I don’t know how I can convince these people,” Ondrus said. “Once our water quality is good and our law enforcement thinks everything is fine, we are ready to go again. It’s still a destination. You can still go horseback riding, go to cowboy barbecues, hike in the national forest.

This could be a tall order for anyone coming from the south or east sides of the park who had hoped to exit from the north. After the southern portion of the park reopens, it would take a nearly 200-mile (320 kilometer) detour through West Yellowstone and Bozeman to reach Gardiner. This would require a drive of nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers) from Cody, Wyoming.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, has come under fire from Democrats and members of the public for being out of the country during the disaster.

Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said the governor left last week on a long-planned personal trip with his wife and was due back Thursday. She would not say where he was, citing security reasons.

In his absence, Montana Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras signed a disaster emergency declaration on Tuesday.

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Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporters 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.