GARDINER — Traffic woes and crowding at the first official gateway to the world’s original national park could be resolved over the next three years, setting the stage for an anticipated celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.
Designed to streamline access into Yellowstone National Park and its north gate, the project is contingent upon a $10 million grant from the Federal Lands Access Program.
But the alliance behind the project includes a convincing list of federal, state and local entities, and that has backers feeling optimistic that the Gardiner Gateway Project could become a reality.
“It’s a planned and integrated approach on both the Yellowstone side and the Gardiner side to get this done,” said Daniel Bierschwale, president of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce. “There’s a bottleneck that occurs here during peak season, and as a community, we want to work with the National Park Service to leverage that work.”
As designed by CTA Architects and Engineers, the project would streamline traffic through Gardiner while adding downtown parking, making it easier for visitors to access local businesses. Public restrooms are in the plans, along with sidewalks and signage welcoming visitors to Yellowstone.
On the park side, improvements would include a new road bypassing Roosevelt Arch to keep traffic moving. Additional parking would be included along the original route for those looking to snap an iconic photo of the arch. Improvements to the north entrance fee station also are planned to help handle increased traffic.
“We have all recognized that the current situation doesn’t do as good a job as we would like at protecting the resources in that area,” said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash. “It was never designed for the type and amount of traffic we see during peak season. The resulting congestion, confusion and safety concerns warrant a coordinated approach to getting this done.”
It was on Yellowstone’s north edge, just outside Gardiner, where President Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for Roosevelt Arch in 1903. President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Act into law 13 years later, preserving a system of parks across the country for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
The arch keeps that promise engraved in stone. The words greet tens of thousands of visitors each year as they enter Yellowstone’s north gate. But most visitors don’t realize that by the time they reach the arch, they’ve already entered Yellowstone Park.
“The Park Street businesses here in Gardiner literally sit on Yellowstone’s northern boundary,” said Bierschwale, speaking of the community’s downtown row of saddle shops, galleries, bars and cafes. “The boundary runs along this sidewalk, so you have this unique situation where if you step into a business, you step into Montana, but when you walk out the door, you’re in Yellowstone.”
Bierschwale notes the geological survey marker pinning the park’s boundary. Officially surveyed in 1902 – long after Yellowstone was founded in 1872 and James McCartney settled here in 1879 – the marker sits hidden by a concrete sidewalk and a rugged wooden fence outside a local business.
Roosevelt arch rises down the street and the fee station is a distant shadow half a mile down North Entrance Road. It’s an arrangement that Cody, West Yellowstone, Jackson and Cooke City – gateway communities in their own right – don’t have.
“The town of Gardiner was built in response to the establishment of the park – it didn’t predate the park,” Nash explained. “Gardiner grew up to serve the mining operations in Jardine and the population that was in the park at the time – the U.S. Army. It was a true frontier town.”
In these winter months, Gardiner still resembles a frontier town. Yellowstone’s north gate is the park’s only gate open to wheeled vehicles arriving from the outside world, and traffic is sparse.
That changes dramatically in May when the snowfields retreat and traffic picks up. Over the past few years, Yellowstone has seen visitation surge to new heights, topping 3.4 million in 2012. More than 648,000 visitors arrived through Gardiner and the north gate last year, the bulk of them between June and September.
Such crowds were never envisioned by early park superintendents, or Gardiner’s natal business community. Horses and buggies reigned supreme in Yellowstone’s early days, when visitors arrived in Gardiner by train on a Northern Pacific rail cutting south from Livingston.
Motor homes, campers and buses now rule the summer road. The congestion has created conservation worries for park managers and headaches for local entrepreneurs and residents, who have seen traffic back up for a mile outside the north gate as visitors wait to get in.
“That’s a visitor experience problem,” said Bierschwale. “You have all these people arriving to the world’s first national park and the first gateway, and that’s what they’re arriving to.”
Yellowstone set an all-time visitation record of more than 3.6 million people in 2010, equal to the combined populations of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and North Dakota. That year, park officials realized the time for action had come. They began holding public meetings and seeking solutions to resolve the north gate’s congestion.
During the process, Gardiner residents and business owners sensed an opportunity to address needed improvements of their own. As the community forged ahead on its Gardiner Gateway Project, the park completed its own North Entrance-Park Street Environmental Assessment Act.
The stars had aligned and last June, roughly 14 stakeholders, including the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration and the Montana Governor’s Office, among others, formally signed a memorandum of understanding to address the problems.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer said at the time that the project would bring economic benefits to the community. National Park Service architect Joe Regula said the improvements would preserve the gateway’s historic atmosphere, taking cues from Roosevelt Arch and other historic buildings.
“We all recognize there are benefits to this,” Nash said. “For us, there’s a feeling and experience one gets when coming though the park’s north entrance, and that’s important for us to preserve.”
When signing the memorandum, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk also looked to the years ahead, primarily 2016, when the National Park Service celebrates its 100th year.
Bierschwale said it’s not impossible to imagine a “high-ranking” political official stopping in Gardiner and using Roosevelt Arch as a backdrop – as Roosevelt did – to mark the anniversary.
The historic date is on the mind of Gardiner residents and Yellowstone officials alike. Yellowstone was the world’s first national park, they proudly note, and it launched a worldwide movement. More than 100 nations contain an estimated 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves, an idea that started here.
“Yellowstone embodies so much of the history of the National Park Service,” said Nash. “This is one of the places where the National Park Service evolved and developed.”