The Yellowstone Story
On June 12, unprecedented floods hit Yellowstone National Park and communities around its borders. The damage–and the TV footage–was dramatic: homes, bridges and roads, washed away on surging rivers overflowing with snowmelt and rainwater.
As the park emptied, it looked like Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary could become a lost year for travelers and the many folks in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho who depend on it as an anchor for their livelihoods.
But not long after, conversations with folks in Yellowstone Country revealed a more nuanced picture. “Things look much better now than they did a week ago,” said Sam Barkley of Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official nonprofit partner, in late June, as priorities for repairs came rapidly into focus. And by July 2, more than 90 percent of the park’s roadways were open. Barkley noted that with information evolving, travelers to the park should make the park’s official website their go-to stop for updates.
Meanwhile, though, with the park’s North and Northeast entries still closed, Montana towns like Livingston, Gardiner and Cooke City went into the key summer season facing deeply uncertain economic prospects on top of significant damage. “Everything changed for Park County that day,” said Gavin Clark of the nonprofit Park County Community Foundation.
For a snapshot of on-the-ground experience around Yellowstone, Wildsam talked to a few of the organizations and businesses that are key to the culture that surrounds this natural sanctuary.
The Park County Community Foundation’s Southwest Montana Flood Relief Fund is providing immediate aid to households and businesses that suffered flood damage, and planning longer-term reconstruction and economic recovery projects. Yellowstone Forever’s Yellowstone Resiliency Fund aids in-park community programs and recovery efforts.
Livingston, county seat of Park County, Montana, saw extensive damage to homes and other property. As one of the crossroads of Yellowstone Country culture, the town is also in the thick of recovery efforts. The Park County Community Foundation leads a significant fundraising effort aimed at helping individuals and businesses that suffered damage.
Gavin Clark, Executive Director
On his flood experience:
I went home for lunch at around noon–we live not far from the Yellowstone River. The water looked like it was getting pretty high. Before I went back to work, I put a stick on the water line so I could get a sense of how much it had risen by the time I got home. At 3 pm, my wife called and said I’d better come home. When I got there, the stick was covered.
By 4 pm, I was sandbagging at my father-in-law’s house. At 4:30, I went over to the 9th Street Island, which is a river island right in town. Houses were covered by water. I went to a neighbor’s house and did some more sandbagging, but the water came right over the sandbags, and we weren’t able to save her house. At about 8, the fire department knocked on the door and said, hey, you’ve gotta go. We threw some clothes in a bag, got the kids in the car and went to my sister-in-law’s place.
On the Foundation’s recovery fund:
That was Monday. By Tuesday morning, we were at work with Greater Gallatin United Way on the Flood Relief Fund. We raised $350,000 almost immediately. The need is going to be in the tens of millions–and all the money in the world won’t be able to reset things to the day before the flood.
A lot of people who were affected didn’t have flood insurance–the flood happened outside the floodplain. And if you’re outside the floodplain, you can’t get flood insurance. In the floodplain, a lot of folks just couldn’t afford it. So there’s plenty to do.
On the vital role of travelers:
If I could lead with one message, it’s that Park County is open for business. Don’t cancel your trips. I wish that instead of repeatedly showing houses falling in the river, the media would show the hiking trails, the high mountain lakes, people floating the river–because you can. There’s plenty to do. Keep your hotel reservations, eat in our restaurants. Our businesses basically have 90 days of summer to make the year.
The small town of Gardiner sits at Montana’s southern edge, not far from the Park’s famed Roosevelt Arch gateway. The closure of the northern park entrances has and will hit the economy of the traveler-dependent town hard, including at low-key, indie favorite Yellowstone River Motel.
On the flood’s effect on business [circa late June]:
We have tons of cancellations. From thirty-eight rooms, I know we have five rooms rented–they’re actually contractors working on the roads. One of the rooms is just a family that came up. Their mom lives here in town, so they came and they stayed in a hotel while they visit with her.
On near-future prospects:
I'm hoping that it’s going to get better with the contractors and people coming to see Gardiner and the national forest around us and just doing things like rafting and horseback riding. All things like that. We’re just trying to get together things in town to advertise.
We just had our water turned on yesterday so that we can actually drink again. A lot of the restaurants were closed because they couldn’t produce the food because they couldn’t use the water, but it's back on today. There’s quite a few restaurants that reopened today.
So, it’s just touch and go and hopefully each day gets better.
The tiny Montana town of West Yellowstone sits on a sliver of Big Sky Country squeezed between Idaho and Wyoming–one of the main gateways to the Park’s South Loop. A little less than a half block before the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park on Yellowstone Avenue, you’ll find Freeheel and Wheel, an eclectic bike and ski shop with an espresso bar.
Kelly Hart, Freeheel and Wheel Co-owner
On the flood’s immediate effect on West Yellowstone:
We feel fortunate that no one was hurt in any of the flooding, erosion, and rainfall. Summer for the past couple of years has not been very busy for us but with the park closed, we were busy with people finding something else to do: riding a bike, hiking in Gallatin National Forest, visiting the Grizzly Discovery Center, going to the IMAX, shopping around town. The restaurants were busier during breakfast and lunch instead of just dinner when everyone's coming out of the park at 7:00 at night.
How the traveler experience could change this year:
With less people in the park, people are going to have a better experience. I spoke with a couple of gals who work at Canyon and they saw an elk and newborn baby, something you don’t often see. With what’s going on on the North Side, the animals are shifting too. With less traffic, they’re not running to higher ground as much as they would when it’s car after car after car after car.
How travelers can help:
Support the gateway communities of Yellowstone National Park. Maybe stay more than one night (if you can afford it.) A lot of folks are in-and-out of these communities, thinking they can see Yellowstone in a day. They’re in a rush. I feel if they could just spend just a little bit more time here they’d really enjoy it and see how much it has to offer. Even spend the morning in the Gateway community and go into the park in the afternoon or the evening.
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Photography by Chloe Nostrant with writing by Wildsam editor Zach Dundas and contributing writer David Grivette