BILLINGS, Mont. — Reopening Yellowstone National Park is going to be a lot more difficult than it was to shut it down a month ago as the coronavirus pandemic spread.
“We’re figuring out the best way to shape a clear path forward in a very unclear situation,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a Tuesday conference call.
For example, although no date for reopening the park has been set, the park’s seasonal staff has already been cut in half in order to provide separate quarters for each employee. Another 200 to 300 park seasonals that are usually hired are being kept in a “holding pattern,” Sholly said, and may not ever be brought in depending on how the summer goes.
Total park seasonal employment, which includes concessionaires like Xanterra Travel Collection and Delaware North, which operate many of the larger hotels, stores and restaurants, runs to about 3,500 to 4,500 employees from around the nation and world.
DecisionsThe park’s decision to provide separate housing for its seasonal workers is one of many moves that park managers have been discussing while trying to figure out what reopening the park might look like.
Their discussion also highlighted the many unknowns that the park staff faces: When will surrounding states lift their travel restrictions?
How many people would come if Yellowstone reopens?
Will there be many international travelers this summer, or will it be mostly regional?
How much notice do businesses outside the park need to prepare for a reopening?
Although lodging reservations are strong for August, how many of those people will cancel?
Should tour buses be banned since they make it more difficult to social distance?
Although high tourism in past summers has prompted discussions about capping the park’s daily visitation, or initiating a reservation system, Sholly said that is not a tactic now being considered.
“We have no plans right now to substantially incorporate reservation only or cap visitors coming into the park once we get to that opening point,” he said. “So what I would say is we will adapt as we go.”
Questions about only opening the park to locals gets complicated, Sholly said, in defining who is local and who is not.
CooperationFor certain, Sholly stressed, any reopening would be done only with full cooperation from surrounding state, county and local officials as well as those involved in the tourism industry.
“I want to really stress what critical and important partners you are to all of us,” he said.
There was a clear consensus among those people that Yellowstone should close, which occurred in late March, to lessen the spread of COVID-19, Sholly said. But cracks are beginning to show in that accord, he added, although a majority still support remaining closed through April and into May.
Protests have been held recently across the country with people calling on governors to lift restrictions on business closures as unemployment reaches record highs. Tourism spending alone has dropped 85%, according to the U.S. Travel Association and the analytics firm Tourism Economics, with 8 million tourism employees projected to be out of work by the end of April, about one-third of the nation’s total unemployment.
What’s up nextWhen Yellowstone does invite tourists back, here’s what travelers might expect. Sholly said it could be a phased-in approach with very few services available, including limited store hours, no lodging at hotels and a staggered opening of campgrounds.
The plan also has to be flexible to possibly reduce visitation if there are coronavirus outbreaks related to travel into Yellowstone, he said.
“No. 1 for us is to have confidence in the plan that we develop about what we want to do, how we want to communicate with visitors that are coming in, what type of mitigation actions we’re taking both in the park or in the communities, some level of, for lack of a better term, expectations that we have of people traveling to this area,” Sholly said. “I don’t know exactly what that looks like but I think that’s got to be a combined gateway, Yellowstone, state, plural effort that’s as consistent as possible.”
PlowingApril 17 would have been the usual spring opening of many Yellowstone roads and some services following the winter season. So road plowing has continued.
“We’re working to be as ready as possible for reopening,” Sholly said.
However, Sholly said he would leave it up to Cooke City residents to decide whether they want the park to plow “the plug” along Highway 212 between the town and Highway 296 near the base of the Beartooth Scenic Byway.
Sholly suggested the road could be plowed and then closed with concrete barriers so that, when the community was prepared to reopen, the route would be ready. Right now, travel to Cooke City and Silver Gate, near the Northeast Entrance to the park, is being discouraged since the only route there is through Yellowstone and services in the towns are minimal.
Likewise, the Montana Department of Transportation has begun plowing its side of the Beartooth Pass even though the park’s opening date is uncertain.
“It typically takes MDT well over a month to clear the Beartooth Pass, and so even though we are working on clearing the road now it won’t be ready to be opened until Memorial Day weekend,” said Lori Ryan, MDT public information officer, in an email. “We have been in contact with the National Park Service and they want (to) be ready for when the park opens. NPS is planning on opening the Wyoming side of US-212 on the regularly scheduled Memorial Day weekend too.”
ConstructionAlthough the decision on when to allow tourists back into the park is still unknown, Sholly said he is allowing some construction projects to proceed. These include a $100 million contract to improve the road between Tower Junction and Mount Washburn, a road that dates back to the 1930s.
The contractor is being required to provide the park with COVID-19 plans, he said.
An employee housing project near Mammoth Hot Springs is also underway. Other projects that weren’t as far along or could be pushed back have been idled for now, Sholly said.
“We’re trying to be as prudent and judicious as possible.”