YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — The first light of day has just crested the caldera, catching the mist rising from the Madison River near Harlequin Lake. Bison graze serenely in the meadow.
A hundred yards away, tourists snap photos of the scene. They speak with hushed voices, awed by the beauty of the moment.
It might be any other day here in Yellowstone National Park — the rings of rising trout ripple the surface of the river, the bugling of bull elk can be heard in the hills, the geysers spout steam into the crisp fall air.
But amongst the beauty of nature, there's a sense of uncertainty.
Yellowstone reopened last Thursday after a two-week federal government shutdown. The shutdown, brought on by political gridlock in Washington, forced the furlough of roughly 800,000 federal employees and closed national parks to the public.
For the gateway communities that surround the park, the shutdown has taken its toll.
“It was like a light turned off,” said Cam Coffin, manager of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone. “People were pretty down about it, having to close early and lay people off to save a few bucks in operating costs. In October, that's when a lot of these businesses are just getting into the black.”
Coffin said he's concerned for local businesses, particularly motel and hotel operators who saw bookings drop dramatically as the shutdown dragged on. He's also concerned the uncertainty brought on by the federal budget battle could impact winter travel with a new debt ceiling deadline looming on January 15, 2014.
This following a delayed park opening brought on by sequester cuts.
“It's hurt this little town, but it is not just here,” Coffin said. “It's the Everglades, it's all over.”
Just down the street, Arrick's Fly Shop was advertising a government shutdown sale, hoping to make the most of a difficult situation. Other businesses in West Yellowstone have already closed for the season.
Coffin said many fly fishers visit Yellowstone in October to pursue brown trout running up from Hebgen Lake into the Madison River.
John Terejko of Philipsburg visits the park each fall to chase the running browns.
“There are absolutely fewer guys this year,” Terejko said. “There are a few people fishing Seven Mile Hole and Nine Mile Hole, but that's about it.”
Terejko said the shutdown has ruined some vacation plans.
“I feel bad for the guys that had to scramble,” Terejko said. “A lot of these trips are planned a year in advance. But the fish don't care about the shutdown. They are still biting.”
As for the park itself, the shutdown forced the closure of many services. Yellowstone General Stores, Yellowstone Park Service Stations and park concessionaire Xanterra decided not to reopen following the shutdown.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said the only commercial facilities still open in the park are the General Store in Mammoth Hot Springs and pay-at-the-pump fuel services throughout the park. He advises visitors to bring their own food.
“There's no place in the park to get a hot burger,” Nash said.
The campgrounds at Mammoth Hot Springs and Lewis Lake were reopened following the shutdown, but the campground at Slough Creek was not reopened and will remained closed for the season. The two park visitor centers at Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful are open and staffed.
Nash said park visitation has rebounded following the shutdown.
“We have had what appear to be some relatively busy days for this time of year, but even a busy day in October is significantly quieter than we'd find in July,” Nash said Wednesday. “This is a time that area residents realize they can go out into the park to a thermal area, take a hike or view wildlife without the summer hustle and bustle.”
Yellowstone will close on Nov. 4, when preparations begin for the oversnow season opening Nov. 15. The road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City remains open year-round.
Nash said the park is in beautiful fall form and hopes to see many visitors before the end of the season.
“If anyone has been on the fence about coming on down, just take a look at the forecast. You couldn't ask for better fall weather,” Nash said. “Hop in the car and come on down.”
Ben Pierce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 582-2625.