Yellowstone is this town’s golden ticket. Climate change risks that.
GARDINER, Mont. – To tour the spectacular Northern Range of Yellowstone National Park each summer, hundreds of thousands of tourists drive along U.S. Highway 89.
On the way to the park, the road snakes past mountains and vistas and rocky waters and through the gateway town of Gardiner.
On June 13, torrential rains intensified by climate change turned the tributary into a furious rush of water that swept the road away.
And Gardiner was suddenly cut off, caught on the wrong side of extreme weather.
Roads such as these are the lifeblood of places like Gardiner that depend on the seasonal rhythm of engines to keep their shops filled and hotels occupied.
The collapsed road turned Gardiner into a dead-end town, severing its access to tourism dollars just as the summer season began.
The town itself escaped the worst of mudslides and flooding. But once tourists discovered they would be blocked from entering the park, they canceled their reservations – even those in December.
“This hidden underlying damage is economic,” said Mike Skelton, president of Gardiner’s Chamber of Commerce and owner of Yellowstone Wonders, which conducts private tours of the park.
“In a normal summer, you really didn’t have to market Gardiner,” Skelton said. “The park was the draw.”
Now, Skelton says his focus is to spread the word that Gardiner is open for business – even if the nearby entrance to the park isn’t.
Currently, only visitors traveling with licensed tour operators can access the park using an old stagecoach road that has been revitalized in the past few weeks. The goal is to pave it, as a quick fix, before winter comes. But rebuilding Yellowstone’s roads may take three to five years and cost $1 billion.
The June floods at Yellowstone represent one more stark example of natural disasters made more common by climate change. National parks sit on the front lines of a warming planet, increasingly vulnerable to wildfires, drought, rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers and more-intense storms. One recent study found that 223 national parks, or more than half of all parks in the Lower 48, are at risk.
At Acadia National Park, on the coast of Maine, severe rains shut down a portion of the park’s historic carriage roads, a favorite for bicyclists and pedestrians. In Yosemite National Park, flames are threatening some of the tallest trees in the world.
At Glacier National Park, the glaciers are melting. At Joshua Tree National Park, the Joshua trees are dying.
At Biscayne National Park in the Florida Keys, warmer waters have bleached marine life out of coral reefs. In Alaska last year, melting permafrost triggered a landslide that washed out the only road into Denali National Park.
“The road closure is such a dramatic thing for visitation there,” said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Most people are missing out on the classic Denali experience and going all the way to the mountain and enjoying the largest mountain in North America.”
The storm in Yellowstone initially shut down all five entrances to the park. Within three weeks, most reopened. The North Entrance in Gardiner remains closed.
Meanwhile, visitors have flocked to the West Entrance. Cars lined up for miles on reopening day, pushing traffic all the way back to the town of West Yellowstone in Montana.
Within a few hours of reopening, most of the park’s attractions were already nearly overrun. Some visitors waited out the storm, traveling to other parks instead.
Justin Kohler and his children Boden, 7, and Quinny, 4, had come from Utah. Kohler said his family decided to go to Grand Teton National Park instead for a few days and came back to Yellowstone when it reopened.
The bustle of crowds rerouted to West Yellowstone made Gardiner’s streets feel all the more empty.
Dick McCumber, who runs the Follow Yer’ Nose Smokewagon, a barbecue food truck in Gardiner, said he hopes people return so he can salvage what’s left of the summer.
Days before the flood, McCumber didn’t have enough space in the smoker for meats.
Water contamination forced restaurants to shut down, leaving locals and tourists without many places to eat. The Smokewagon was spared from the contamination because the truck was several miles away from the river and is connected to its own septic and well.
McCumber said his place was the only one still running after the storm. He says he’s not planning to move his wheels anytime soon.
“I’d rather stick it out, personally,” he said.
McCumber was a white-water guide for 15 years before moving to Gardiner. He began to smoke meat with the help of a friend more than a decade ago after winning his smoker in a raffle.
“It’s kind of a special little place,” McCumber said. “It’s a white-water rafting community, so I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for all of those raft guides.”
Sarah Ondrus and her husband cater to adventurers, with vacation rentals, rafting tours and other businesses. Before the flood, they had more than 20 employees. Now, they’re down to nine.
“We do not blame anyone for leaving,” Ondrus said. “We did not have enough work for them.”
The couple had dealt with the pandemic and a fire that destroyed one of their rafting offices, she said, “but this flood is by far the worst that has happened” since Ondrus moved to Yellowstone in 2000.
“There is no way we could have prepared for this,” she said. “We were set up for our best summer ever, and now we are barely surviving. We are basically open . . . to issue refunds.”
A month before President Barack Obama left office, then-National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis issued a directive ordering agency staffers to take climate change into account when developing management plans for the lands and waters they steward. Trump administration officials revoked the policy in 2017, and the Biden administration has not restored it.
“People are not coming, because they think Gardiner has been destroyed and they don’t want to come if they can’t drive into Yellowstone National Park,” Ondrus said. “We just have to remind people that Gardiner, Montana, is a beautiful and fun destination, and then hope for the best.”
Keeping business in Yellowstone and promoting the park’s access has been a priority for Dave McGlashan. McGlashan and his wife, Amanda Fox, run Adventure Treks, a company that operates summer camps for young adults across the country, including in Yellowstone.
But McGlashan says there’s one other major factor that is threatening access to national parks in Western states: heat.
Outdoor recreation generates billions in revenue for Montana and Wyoming, according to a 2020 analysis by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. But this income disappears if visitors cannot access these sites.
As climate impacts increase and temperatures swell, McGlashan said, tour companies are rethinking their future operations. He said national park closures as a result of wildfires or even potential wildfires, particularly in California, are happening earlier and more often, making it harder to have a sustainable business.
“We don’t know where we’re going to operate in the next 10 to 15 years,” McGlashan said. “We’re not going to be able to operate 100 students in California when it’s 120 degrees.”
McGlashan remains optimistic that by introducing hundreds of young adults each year to the natural world, they will begin to think about “those incredible treasures we have in the country.”
“You only protect the things that you know about,” McGlashan said.
Vitkovskaya reported from Washington, D.C. Partlow reported from Olympia, Wash..