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Yellowstone floods and closures may shift tourism in Montana

High water levels in the Lamar River eroding the Northeast Entrance Road.
National Park Service
National Park Service
High water levels in the Lamar River eroding the Northeast Entrance Road.

Yellowstone National Park’s northern entrances remain closed after major flooding swallowed roads, bridges and homes. State and federal public land agencies are now anticipating visitors to look for other outdoor recreation opportunities, bringing crowds and tourism dollars to other areas.

Pam Crowhurst came to Montana from California to visit the state’s well-known national parks. Her plans changed when historic flooding swept through Yellowstone, leading her to extend her time in Glacier National Park.

“So our alternative was we booked an additional night here, so we were able to keep our site one more night. And then we’re going into Butte to see the Lady of the Rockies — don’t know what that is.”

Crowhurst is one of many tourists faced with the decision of changing their itinerary after flooding closed most of the Montana entrances to Yellowstone.

State and federal agencies that manage public lands in Montana are now anticipating higher visitation as tourists look to alternative campgrounds, hiking trails and fishing sites this summer. That could put increasing pressure on already crowded public lands.

“We’re going to need people to camp successfully in dispersed areas if we’re going to deal with the level of interest that there’s going to be this summer,” said Katie Stevens, Western District Manager for the Bureau of Land Management. The bureau is under additional pressure because they are light on seasonal recreational staff.

Increases in visitors camping during the pandemic brought issues like people leaving toilet paper on the ground, not properly putting out campfires and more interactions between humans and grizzly bears, Stevens said. She expects more visitors to seek out BLM land given the recent flooding in Yellowstone.

Greg Lemon, a spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the organization was already anticipating a busier year, too.

“With the recent activity in the park, with the flooding and everything, we’ve already seen in a couple of parks a pretty big spike in visitation.”

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, Pictograph Cave State Park and Chief Plenty Coups State Park have all seen a jump in visitation since the flooding in Yellowstone, Lemon said.

New visitors arriving during the COVID-19 pandemic prepared FWP for this challenge, he added.

“From our standpoint, I think we’re ready to handle the increase in visitation.”

Glacier National Park, about a 6-hour drive northwest from Yellowstone, having already faced overcrowding problems last year put in place a ticketed-entry system to limit how many people can access the park per day.

Gina Kerzman, the park’s spokesperson, said the park hasn’t changed any plans.

“We have a system in place, we think it’s working well and we’re going to stick with it.”

Glacier has also closed roads and trails due to flooding and encourages guests to check the park’s website to get more details on its vehicle registration program before arriving, Kerzman said.

Montana’s political leaders are encouraging tourists not to abandon a visit to the state, as tourism brings in billions of dollars each year. Governor Greg Gianforte has said that Montana is open for business. He specifically pointed to the tourism-driven areas hit hardest by the flooding, including Gardiner, Red Lodge and the Paradise Valley.

Montana’s congressional delegation this week sent a letter to leaders of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management urging them to provide more flexibility to outfitters and guides affected by the flooding.

Nonresident travelers spent more than $3.5 billion in 2019, according to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

Kelly Pohl, the associate director for Headwaters Economics, says Yellowstone visitors spend more than $237 million annually in Montana.

“It’s likely that there will be more tourists recreating and visiting other nearby communities in Montana.”

The state has a lot to offer, but some public lands don’t have the infrastructure to support many more visitors, Pohl said.

“This becomes a substantial management challenge for the agencies that oversee those areas.”

Northern entrances to Yellowstone through Gardiner and Cooke City will likely remain closed for the rest of the year. Visitors can get to the southern loop of the park and officials are limiting the number of visitors with a system based on car license plate numbers.

Park officials and surrounding communities continue tallying the damage and are processing the destruction from the flooding as they start rebuilding.

Interest in outdoor recreation spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Americans looked for ways to have fun safely. This year more may consider looking for alternatives to the nation’s first national park as it celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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