Yellowstone’s gateway communities seeing economic impact from flooding closures
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In late June, big electronic signs around West Yellowstone, Montana, let people know: Cars with license plates ending in even numbers could enter Yellowstone National Park on even-numbered dates, while odd numbers could enter on odd days.
That was to control the flow of visitors as the park repaired northern areas after historic flooding in the region. Utah resident Nichole Willoughby was visiting with relatives from Missouri and California. She said her group got lucky enough to get into the park, even while a big part of it was still closed.
“It was my mom’s birthday yesterday, and luckily my license plate ends in a seven, so I could go yesterday,” she said. Still, she said having parts of the park closed after months of planning was “kind of a bummer.”
Park officials have since reopened northern sections of the park and ended the odd/even license plate system.
Business owners say the park is important for the economies of West Yellowstone and nearby communities, so even a short closure or reduction in visitors can hurt.
“The park means everything to this town, like the other community towns,” said Bob Jacklin, who owns Jacklin’s Fly Shop in West Yellowstone and has been an area fishing guide for more than 50 years. “So the minute the park opens, we’re open. The minute it closes, we’re closed. That’s how it works.”
While the park-wide flooding closures were unprecedented, Jacklin said West Yellowstone itself didn’t face much flooding — just regular high water. At the same time, hotels had significant cancellations. For example, Three Bear Lodge reported having about 30 to or 40% of its usual occupancy when the park was closed.
Still, folks in West Yellowstone say others had it much worse — like those in Red Lodge, Cooke City and Gardiner, Montana, where flooding and park closures were more severe.
Gardiner now has an access road into the park, but it’s only open to tour guides, like Brad Bulin.
“This is actually one of the cheapest ways to get in the park with the tour guide right now is coming to Gardiner. And one of the cheapest places to stay,” he said.
That’s because of limited park access and services. Bulin and his wife Carolyn own Yellowstone Wildlife Profiles.
As of late July, even guides like the Bulins could only come and go from Yellowstone at certain times of day. They could go into the park around 5 or 7 a.m. and come back at around noon or 5 p.m. That could mean shorter or significantly longer tours than these guides are used to.
Those limitations are so the park can shore up the road that guides are using. The Bulins say it’s an 1800s stagecoach path that’s being turned into a new, two-lane paved access road, since the main road was destroyed by flooding.
“We have very short windows when we can actually drive on it, because when people are driving on it, they can’t work on it,” Carolyn Bulin said.
The Bulins’ business is coming back a little, but not as much as they’d like.
Carolyn Bulin is pregnant, due in September; their other child is almost two years old. The Bulins just started this tour business last year after they were laid off during the pandemic.
She said other businesses in town are struggling even more. Some even burned down in a 2020 fire. It’s been a tough few years in Gardiner.
Carolyn Bulin said she worries about the economic fallout for local family-owned businesses.
“And there already aren’t very many kids here because it’s hard to raise a family here. It’s expensive so that if it has long-term effects on the school and the schools’ funding and just what it’s like to try to raise a family here,” she said.
Another business owner, Jeremy Backer, has two young daughters in Gardiner and operates the Grizzly Grille restaurant. He said last year around this time, he was making about $2,000 a day; more recently, it was $200 a day. He had to lay off staff but keeps working alone to provide for his family and get federal aid.
“If I am applying for grants or any kind of help from the government, they need to see working capital. So I basically have to stay open even though I’m not making any money just so that the government can help me,” he said.
Backer said some businesses will stay closed for the summer if they can afford to. Others may never reopen.
Both Backer and the Bulins say they hope people realize that towns like Gardiner are open for business — even if there are limitations.
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