By Mark Davis and CJ Baker, Powell Tribune
When will Yellowstone National Park reopen? That will likely depend on the recommendations and actions of health officials and leaders in the areas surrounding the park, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly says.
While Sholly does not know when reopening will come, “I’m not naive to the fact that this will happen sooner than later — that the economic impacts of this [pandemic], as time goes, will be in the forefront of people’s minds even more so than they are now,” he told Park County commissioners on Tuesday.
Yellowstone closed its gates to the public on March 24 as part of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19. Sholly said there was unanimous support from area leaders to shut down. However, he predicted that deciding when to reopen the international destination will probably be more difficult.
Sholly said he’s asked all four health officers from the counties surrounding the park — Park and Teton County, Wyoming, and Park and Gallatin County, Montana — to try to make a unified recommendation.
“I think a worst case scenario for us, for me here, is to get two county health officers saying it’s safe to open and two county health officers saying, ‘stay closed,’” he said, adding, “We may not be able to gain consensus, but I think the more that we’re talking about it and the more that we’re in agreement, the easier that’s going to be.”
Sholly also indicated that the park would likely look to follow area communities when they ease COVID-19-related restrictions.
The superintendent said the park could potentially “ramp up” to a full opening, perhaps allowing day use of the park prior to opening visitors centers, bathrooms and allowing vendors to open stores, restaurants and lodging.
“Then, as time goes on, you know, we would open more and more of those facilities, once it is safe to do so,” he said.
Xanterra Travel Collection, the operator of lodges and retail locations in the park, restaurants and other facilities, previously announced it was suspending its operations through at least May 22.
Before the pandemic, Yellowstone had expected to have all of its gates open by May 8, with the East Entrance opening May 1. Sholly reiterated that Park Service workers are continuing to get ready to open so that they’re ready when the time comes.
Asking for a constituent, Commissioner Dossie Overfield inquired about local “foot” use, but Sholly said that, “for right now … closed is closed.”
That means no bike traffic or hiking in the backcountry for local residents — even after roads have been plowed for the summer season.
“You get into this real slippery slope, as you can imagine, in what defines local,” Sholly said. “You know, people in Bozeman think they’re local. But people in Gardiner think they’re the real locals.”
And the superintendent — who’s already fielded multiple requests to allow locals in — indicated he wasn’t going to entertain that kind of decision making process about where to draw the local line.
“Generally speaking, until we open, we’re not going to make exceptions,” he said.
The North Gate is open to those traveling to Cooke City, Montana, but traffic is being closely monitored, Sholly said. Otherwise, nobody will enter the park “unless they’re on official business.”
The National Park Service has had inconsistent policies from park to park, saying it is “modifying its operations on a park-by-park basis in accordance with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local public health authorities.”
While most facilities and events are closed or canceled, many properties remain accessible to the public. For example: Yellowstone is closed to all visitors. Meanwhile, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has closed its facilities, but the trail system and water access is still open.
The superintendent was quick to point out the economic impact of having the park closed when Commissioner Jake Fulkerson, on behalf of a constituent, asked for an update on park employees and vendors registering their vehicles in Wyoming.
Xanterra paid $3.7 million in payroll, sales and lodging taxes last year. Other concessionaires pay millions more in taxes from sales and gas taxes. But Sholly said many of the problem plates have been changed and are now registered in Park County.
“There are probably more serious conversations to have right now than whether a few people in Park County have Montana license plates,” he said.
While not dismissing the concern, “I think right now … our focus really needs to be squarely on getting the park open when it’s safe and being prepared to do so,” Sholly said, “ultimately getting visitors into these communities and businesses back on their feet as quickly as possible.”