Government shutdown forces Yellowstone Park closure

2013-10-01T14:33:00Z 2013-10-02T16:56:06Z Government shutdown forces Yellowstone Park closureBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

GARDINER — This small Montana town at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park was clogged with cars and RVs Tuesday morning as word spread that the government shutdown had closed the park.

Amid all the traffic was a backpacker, hiking Highway 89 and holding a yellow piece of paper scrawled with the word "Livingston." 

One way or another, tourists and travelers were leaving town. 

At the park's entrance, under the Roosevelt Arch, Don and Judy Adams stood outside their Honda trying to decide what to do.

"We're just heart-broken," Judy Adams said.

The couple is from Winchester, Va., and had been traveling through the Pacific Northwest for last two weeks, visiting Redwoods National Park and the Oregon coast.

Their final destination was going to be Yellowstone.

They arrived to Gardiner at about 5 p.m. on Monday and were able to get down to Old Faithful before heading back out.

"At least we saw the sunset," she said.

Allen Yang and Soon Lee weren't so lucky.

The pair are from California and had with them relatives from Taiwan. They've been planning this trip for years. Lee, an avid fly fisherman, was going to spend the week fishing.

"Very shameful that the government would do this," Yang said.

Then he pointed to his relatives.

"It hurts them even more. They had to pay a lot to get here," he said.

Park Superintendent Dan Wenk was sympathetic. But there's little he can do.

"When you have a lapse in appropriations you have to take those measures to protect the park," he said.

He was at Mammoth Hot Springs, the park's headquarters on Tuesday, talking to park visitors who were preparing to leave. He even delivered a few furlough papers for employees to sign. 

The shutdown, he said, will be felt in Yellowstone and in the surrounding communities.

The parks sees about 60,000 visitors to the park during a typical first week of October, Wenk said. Those visitors bring in about $175,000 in entrance fees for the week. 

Businesses in the communities around the park pull in about $15 million in the month of October. Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, those towns will bear much of the impact, he said. 

At the park itself, about five of every six park staff members will be furloughed. The park will keep on hand the staff necessary to maintain vulnerable and valuable attractions, he said.

With the shutdown, traffic across the park will be restricted, Wenk said.

Back at the Roosevelt Arch, a tour bus of Chinese and Indian tourists sat idling while its passengers posed for photos in front of the park sign. 

"People are really angry about this," said tour member Michael Gao. 

He said his group was on the fourth day of a seven-day tour of western states that began in California. Yellowstone was supposed to be the highlight, the grand finale. 

"They didn't give us any notice," Gao said. "So we don't have any emergency backup plan."

Many from the tour didn't speak fluent English, but when they heard the word "shutdown" they frowned and two men gave the thumbs down sign. 

Not locked out

Residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate, towns that in the winter are only accessible by automobile through the North and Northeast entrances to Yellowstone National Park, will still be able to travel through the park despite the government shutdown.

The residents are issued stickers for their cars that allow passage. The park’s North Entrance at Mammoth Hot Springs to the towns is the only winter route open to automobile traffic.

“The gates are being staffed because we still have employees and contractors coming in and out,” said Al Nash, the park’s chief of public affairs. “So it’s not quite as simple as just closing the gates.”

Everyone else, including the private contractors who work at the park — like Xanterra employees — will be restricted to where they work.

If they want to get from one side of the park to the other, "They'll have to go around," Wenk said.

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