Yellowstone Park closed due to government shutdown

Tim Reid, Yellowstone National Park's chief ranger at the North Entrance, explains to visitors Tuesday morning, Oct. 1, that the park is closed and that the only way out is back through Gardiner.

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The federal government shutdown and winter weather have forced the closure of all roads connecting Cooke City to the rest of the world and turned the gateway town into a literal tourist trap.

Snowstorms have caused the National Park Service to keep the Beartooth Pass closed since Sept. 24, said Al Nash, Yellowstone National Park spokesman. The most recent storm dropped between 10 and 14 inches of snow, preventing road travel to the Chief Joseph Highway, which can be used as an alternate route out of Cooke City. And Yellowstone closed Tuesday because of a congressional budget impasse that caused the federal government to shut down.

Locals can travel through along the still-plowed roads of the park to Gardiner with special stickers they apply for from the park. Tourists, however, are unable to traverse the stretch, barring a medical emergency.

“We're trapped,” said Bill Anderson, of Wichita, Kan., one of about 15 tourists in Cooke City. “It's nuts.”

Anderson and his wife, Jan Taylor, spoke over the phone while eating lunch at Buns N Beds, the only business open in Cooke City besides the gas station.

Anderson, his wife and the dozen or so other tourists in town are there to visit the park and watch wolves, elk and bison in the fall weather, as they have annually for the past 12 years, Anderson said.

He and Taylor have been in town since early September. Anderson, 70, is retired, and his wife has a flexible work schedule, allowing them to take about a full month vacation. They're scheduled to leave Oct. 18, the day after lawmakers have to vote on whether to raise the nation's borrowing limit. The scheduling was a coincidence, said Anderson.

Anderson said he's written and called his congressional representative, to no avail.

“We're screwed. But I'm not willing to be screwed silently. You got to open your mouth,” Anderson said.

The owner of Buns N Beds, Leo Gaerther, likened Cooke City to a “ghost town” now that the park and connecting roads have closed. He only remains open because of the trapped tourists and locals and estimates that business has “dropped almost 100 percent” since the government shutdown.

“I just wish we could get this thing resolved. I still got to pay the light bill, I still got to pay the mortgage. That doesn't go away. They don't care whether (Yellowstone) is open or closed. It's something people don't think about, but that's just how it is,” Gaerther said.

Similar scenes have played out in other Montana communities that serve as gateways to the country's first national park. Chelsea DeWeese, whose family owns Yellowstone River Motel in Gardiner, said the shutdown has driven bookings down 50 percent and is causing 13 people to leave earlier than planned.

If the shutdown drags on, it could deprive the business — which operates six months of the year — of a full month's revenue. What's worse is the negative word-of-mouth publicity that could spread as a result, she said.

Word of mouth is important for businesses in the tourism industry, said Cory Lawrence, executive officer of Off the Beaten Path, a Bozeman-based adventure travel company. He estimated 70 percent of the company's clients are either repeat customers or ones who were recommended to Off the Beaten Path by others.

Travis Watt, president of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, said that several businesses around the community are simply closing for the winter. Typically, businesses close for the winter at the end of October, but with the government shutdown expected to last at least until Oct. 17, owners are simply cutting their losses.

“I just hope that we can get this thing resolved and get the park open again,” Gaerther said.

Jason Bacaj may be reached at jasonb@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.

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