Yellowstone Businesses Paying To Keep Tourism Alive During Gov Shutdown

Jan 3, 2019

The company that struck a deal with Yellowstone National Park to pay park employees to keep the park open during the federal government shutdown says it’s willing to keep paying into February, but will have to re-evaluate if the shutdown lasts longer than that.

"Hopefully the government will resolve this matter before then," says Mike Keller, the general manager for Xanterra Parks and Resorts in Yellowstone. It operates the only hotels that stay open inside the park in winter.

"This is already a much longer shutdown than anything we’ve experienced previously, since, I believe, 1995."

With the government shutdown looming a couple of weeks ago, Xanterra got together with the 13 park concessionaires that bring tourists into Yellowstone in winter and asked them to chip in to cover the $7,500 a day it costs to keep vehicle access to the park open. That includes plowing the paved roads for car access to Mammoth and Cooke City, and to groom the more than 300 miles of snow-covered roads that snowmobiles and snow coaches use to access Xanterra’s hotel at Old Faithful and most other park attractions, like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

I asked Keller if Xanterra and the local guide services paying park employees to use park equipment to groom park roads expect to be reimbursed by the federal government.

"There is no reimbursement from the government after the shutdown ends, (for) the funds that we pay operate for those days. We won’t be reimbursed the dollars that we’ve committed for the previous 14 days."

Xanterra is picking up a little over half the tab to keep park roads open, and its employees are helping clean public bathrooms at Madison Junction, Canyon Village and Old Faithful.

The rest of the expense is being split between the 13 companies that run tours into the park in the winter from near Jackson and Cody, Wyoming, Gardiner, Montana, and West Yellowstone, where most are located.

Jerry Johnson owns this snowmobile rental shop and guiding service in West Yellowstone, called Backcountry Adventures. He says he’s one of the smaller tour operators in town. Johnson runs seven tours a day into the park on snowmobiles or in the vans with big balloon tires or treads called snow coaches.

Jerry Johnson, the owner of Backcountry Adventures, stands in front of one of his snow coaches. Yellowstone's concession owners are paying the $7,500 it costs per day to keep the park open during the government shutdown.
Credit Eric Whitney / MTPR

Like all the other guiding companies, he’s on the hook for about $300 day to keep winter access to the park open.

He charges $119 to $215 per person for tours, so $300 a day isn’t a huge hit, but, he says, "Am I happy about it? No. Am I happy that they’re allowing us to go into the park, and that was how we could do it? Yes. Being shut down would cost me a lot more money than $250 to $300 a day, I can tell you that, and I’d have 14 employees out of work."

What really bums him out, Johnson says, is the prospect of having to tell people who’ve booked what might be the trip of a lifetime to one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world that they can’t go because of politics in Washington, D.C. He says he doesn’t blame either Congress or President Trump more than the other.

"No, I think they’re both equally in fault. That’s the problem, is they want to get re-elected, rather than just going and doing what they’re supposed to do. We’re going to go on with business, we’re still going to pay out taxes, and we’re going to go on because we’re the public. We’re the private sector and we’re trying to make a living."

Back out in the parking lot of Johnson’s shop, Dan Gibbons is pretty stoked that local businesses have figured out a way to maintain winter access into Yellowstone. He’s from Bozeman and has family visiting from overseas during the holidays, and they’d been planning a snowmobile tour to Old Faithful. Then they heard about the government shutdown.

"I was scared at first, but relieved once we found out we could go in," Gibbons said.

I asked what was the best part.

"Seeing the kids' reaction. The trees next to the geysers are covered in ice crystals, I could show you some pictures, it's brilliant," he replied with a laugh. 

Just like nobody knows how long the government shutdown will last, it’s unclear how long the hotel and tour operators will be willing to pony up $7,500 a day to keep winter access open. Jerry Johnson at Backcountry Adventures says he’s willing to keep doing it until the winter season ends March 15 if he has to. But Xanterra Resorts’ Mike Kendall says he’s planning to ask the companies joining his in the funding arrangement to re-evaluate sometime in February if they have to.

Kendall says local businesses can afford to subsidize Yellowstone National Parks for a while, when about 20,000 to 30,000 a month people visit. But in the summer, when 700,000 to 900,000 a month show up?

"If a shutdown were the summertime, I don’t know if it would be possible to have this kind of an arrangement in place without additional resources necessary to support the Yellowstone operation in the summertime."