By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
While park visitors, staff and gateway communities celebrated the opening of three of Yellowstone National Park’s five entrances Wednesday, residents in the northeast corner of the Park did their best to stay positive.
But news that the first priority for the federal disaster aid set aside for flood damage will be repairing the road from Gardiner to Mammoth at the park’s north entrance rather than the access to the park from the northeast entrance, is discouraging to many.
“(U.S. Sen. John) Tester went with (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) over to Gardiner and Red Lodge, but never came up here,” said Terri Briggs, owner of the Big Moose Resort at Colter Pass and president of the Colter Pass/Cooke City/Silver Gate Chamber of Commerce. “So they haven’t evaluated here. Why have we been kind of left out, or halfway, or did they just not come to this area?”
When Yellowstone was evacuated on June 13, access to the tiny communities near the park’s northeast entrance was temporarily cut off. Without power, water, or means of escape, many residents of Cooke City and Silvergate, Montana could only wait for roads to reopen and power to be restored, which occurred a couple of days after the flooding.
But the floods damaged businesses and homes and cut off more than just access to the park – it brought to a halt the area’s primary source of income, tourism.
On Sunday, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams, along with Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, announced that $50 million would be made available to kick-start recovery efforts from record breaking floods.
The initial $50 million will be used to restore temporary access to Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana and other additional sites.
“We’ve got $60 million in emergency funds that have been released to reconnect the park to Gardner and Cooke City,” said Sholly. “That’s going along very well already with Gardiner, but it’s going to be more of a chore with Cooke City.”
In a Facebook post Monday, park officials pointed out that the NPS is working with the Federal Highway Administration on a range of temporary and permanent options to restore access to Silver Gate and Cooke City. Currently, the Northeast Entrance Road is impassible between Lamar Valley and Silver Gate.
Residents like Chris Warren, bartender at the Range Rider Lodge in Silvergate, said it’s understandable that the Park Service would focus its efforts on Gardiner before turning its attention towards the northeast entrance.
“If they fix that one road, it opens up that whole northern loop,” Warren told Cowboy State Daily. “And Billings and Gardiner and Livingston (Montana) are so much more populated than we are. But you know, as far as the shutdowns and all the things, we’re always kind of last in line because of how remote and small we are.”
According to census data, there are 77 residents in Cooke City and just 19 in Silver Gate. But Warren pointed out that businesses in those communities have recently gone to great lengths to attract tourists to the lesser-used entrance to Yellowstone.
“It’s going through like a little revamp after COVID,” Warren said. “A little facelift, and some new energy, and a lot of people have started new businesses. So they’re just in a real tough spot and people are a little desperate.”
State officials say they understand the hardship that residents near the northeast entrance are experiencing.
“Our hearts go out to those communities in Gardiner, Montana, Red Lodge, Montana, Cooke City, I can’t even imagine what they’re dealing with,” said Diane Shober, director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism. “And I am so grateful that there was no loss of lives, and that they will be rebuilding their communities and their tourism economy.”
In a conference call with tourism industry leaders Tuesday, Sholly said that restoring access between Cooke City and Gardiner will be tricky, as compared to the situation to the west in Gardiner.
“That will be the most challenging repair,” said Sholly. “We have this old Gardiner road that we’re able to explore expanding, and it’s a good temporary solution. But we don’t have an old Gardiner road over there, and that road is damaged fairly majorly, in about four sections. So there’s going to be four different temporary bypasses to try to be built.”
Warren said he hopes there can be some headway made before the end of the summer, even if the entire road between Gardiner and Cooke City can’t be repaired in that time.
“If they could work with us on maybe opening up this end of the park, even to the first wash out, or the Beartooth Highway,” Warren proposed. “I mean, this is affecting a lot of people.”
Mike Keller with Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the primary concessionaire in Yellowstone, said the message they and other partners are hoping to send is that Cooke City is accessible from Cody via the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, and visitors to the area should consider exploring those unique and scenic communities.
“They are definitely working on the roads, and keeping the Beartooth Highway open and Chief Joseph Highway open to get people into the Cooke City area,” Keller said.
Shober pointed out that situations like the recent flood emphasize the dependence of small communities on the tourism industry.
“Through the summer months, this is their livelihood,” Shober said. “The visitor economy is what supports these small towns. So we’re hoping that all of the repairs will get things back to normal as quickly as possible.”