Yellowstone gateway communities affected

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

As the federal government shut down on Oct. 1, Yellowstone National Park closed its gates, essentially shuttering area businesses that depend on fall traffic in the park.

Park employees showed up to work that day, but 529 were sent home on furlough, said YNP Public Information Officer Al Nash. A group remained to execute the shutdown, which included closing the gates to incoming public traffic; later in the week, 45 more were set for furlough, Nash said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Congress hasn’t yet passed a budget, causing a lapse in federal funding and ensuing loss of services including closure of all national parks. This is the first government shutdown in 17 years, since Clinton was in office.

Because there are people who live in the park, it will keep basic life, health and safety services available like water and wastewater treatment plants, emergency medical and structural fire services, law enforcement capability, and snow plow drivers. Nash will also remain on staff to answer media questions.

The only park road that remains open to the public is U.S. Highway 191, between Big Sky and West Yellowstone; however, the trailheads will be closed.

Even if the shutdown and closure are short-lived, it’s already had a devastating effect on business in West Yellowstone, according to Melissa Alder, co-owner of the outdoor store in West, Freeheel and Wheel.

“September has been very busy, and we’ve seen a lot of visitors in town, a lot of fishermen… We’ve spent a fair amount of money marketing the community in the shoulder seasons … and over the last few years that business has built up significantly. An extended closure is going to hurt the community, and everyone in town is going to suffer.”

Fall visitors to West typically come 5-7 days, rather than 1-2 days like summer visitors, Alder said, but many will cancel their fall plans to visit. “It’s going to put a quick end to the season that was seemingly one of the busiest falls we’ve ever had.”

The road from the park’s North Entrance in Gardner, to the Northeast Entrance is closed to anyone but Cooke and Silver Gate residents and the remaining park employees, Nash said.

For residents of tiny Cooke City, four miles from the Northeast Entrance, their already remote village has instantly become a ghost town, said Leo Gaertner, owner of the restaurant/motel, Buns N Beds.

“There’s nobody here. No one,” Gaertner said on Oct. 1. “It’s terrible. The only people here are those that are already here. We have probably about eight wildlife-viewing people and six fishermen. They can’t get [here], unless they’re coming from Cody.”

Gaertner said a tour group had called to cancel earlier that morning, because it wasn’t allowed into the park. Of the four restaurants that would be serving food, Gaertner said only his and the Beartooth Café were still open.

“I don’t have any choice, I got a mortgage payment, so any local people that are around, I’m going to be here to feed them.”

In Cody, Wyo., Chamber of Commerce Director Scott Balyo reports much the same.

“Obviously we are nearing the end of our summer season, but this is still an important time of the year for Cody area businesses. As long as Yellowstone is open, there are visitors from around the world who have come to experience what is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“The longer the shutdown lasts,” he added, “the less likely it becomes that visitors will retain their travel plans, and our local hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions will suffer economically.”