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Yellowstone officials talk resilience as Gardiner prepares for summer season

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — This time three years ago, Gardiner was a ghost town — Yellowstone National Park was shuttered for weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The park later reopened, and the summer season recovered, but a fire wiped out two popular businesses in town in July. COVID-19 impacts persisted through the 2021 season, but by the time spring rolled around in 2022, things were looking up as businesses were looking forward to a more normal year out of the pandemic.

Then came the flood: In mid-June, right as the summer tourism season was picking up steam, snowmelt and heavy rains roared downstream, wiping out roads, bridges, homes and the town’s summer tourism season.

“Last year was a curveball,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said during a Montana Chamber of Commerce event in Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs on Friday.

Now, the town that is the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park is trying to recover from the “one, two, three, four, five” punch — it’s been dealt with in recent years.

“When disasters hit like this you find out people’s true characters, good and bad, and there’s a lot of good people around here,” said Mike Skelton, a local business owner and president of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce. “We have been through quite a bit the last three years but we’re here, we’re resilient, and we will push forward.”

Gavin Clark, the executive director of the Park County Community Foundation, said people and businesses are still reeling from the flooding.

The foundation raised over $3 million for flood relief — from across the world and all 50 states — to support the community. Clark said he believes the support speaks to the impact Yellowstone, and the people around it, have on visitors.

“I don’t think they just remembered the scenic views, the bear, the elk, the antelope, right, they remembered the people that lived here, and they knew that people were hurting and they stepped up to support that in incredible ways,” Clark said.

There is reason for optimism for this year, officials said Friday. After the floods washed out the North Entrance Road, crews built a new access road from Mammoth to Gardiner in a few months time and got it complete just about a week before two feet of snow fell. Had construction been delayed into winter, Sholly said kids from Mammoth would have had no way to get to school, and employees in Gardiner no way to get to work.

Sholly said they are in the process of considering what a permanent version of the northern entrance road could look like, which will include public comment periods and more extensive planning than a road that was built in four months.

“We’re going to take our time a little bit, make sure we’re on the right track and that we build something that’s resilient to the future, as minimally disruptive to the park resources (and) the visual aspects of the park,” Sholly said.

Sholly and others said there is optimism in the air about the summer season, even as flood repairs and recovery continue. The north and northeast entrance roads are open, and Sholly said he expects the wastewater system fix for the Mammoth Hotel will be complete in June, allowing the facility to open.

Sholly said he expects the park will get back to the $4 million visitor mark this year, and said he thinks people are looking forward to putting the flooding, and COVID-19, behind them.

“Resilience is probably an understatement, especially when it comes to Gardiner,” Sholly said.