Concessionaires, guides help keep Yellowstone open
Joseph Bullington —
Thursday, January 3, 2019
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Enterprise photos by Nate Howard

Yellowstone National Park visitors soak in the Boiling River, a section of the Gardner River, Wednesday. Despite the government shutdown, a park ranger was on duty to clear the hot springs at the posted closing time of 6 p.m.

If you were somehow unaware of the partial shutdown of the federal government, a trip to the Boiling River in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park probably would not have clued you in. Though one of the two parking lots was gated closed, the other was, as usual these days, jammed with cars at 5 p.m. on Wednesday evening, and a ranger walked the trail about 6 p.m., as usual, to clear out any swimmers who might’ve thought the gridlock in D.C. would translate into looser rules in the park.

“We didn’t have to pay (to enter the park) — that was pretty cool,” said Jill Witt, of Billings, who was exploring the boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs with her husband and two adult daughters. “Other than that, it didn’t seem much different.”

With the government shutdown in its 12th day, “it’s kind of, but not totally, business as usual” in the park, said Lauren Barrett, executive director of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce. 

In fact, Barrett said, this winter has actually been busier than usual, despite the shutdown.

“A lot of our guides and hotels were booked up even before the shutdown,” she said.

Unlike during some past shutdowns — notably the October 2013 impasse, which lasted 16 days — Yellowstone has so far remained open to visitors. All government-run facilities, including entrance stations and visitor centers, are closed, but people can still enter the park — free of charge. The highway from Gardiner to Cooke City remains open, and visitors can still access the interior of the park by oversnow travel with licensed snowcoach and snowmobile tours.

Under its shutdown contingency plan, Yellowstone has allowed private concessioners to pick up the government’s tab for road maintenance. Xanterra, the private concessioner that runs Yellowstone National Park Lodges, is paying 58 percent of the cost for the Park Service to plow the northern road and groom the interior roads, while the other 13 concessioners licensed to operate in the park are paying the remaining 42 percent, according to Xanterra General Manager Mike Keller.

“We, Xanterra, are kind of spearheading the whole effort to keep the park open,” said Keller.

It would be a different story if it were summer, said Keller, who said it’s hard to imagine how the park could stay open through a period of heavy visitation without federal employees and resources. 

“Really the big thing for us in the winter is having the roads plowed and groomed,” he said, explaining that the company makes most of its wintertime money out of getting visitors to its lodge and services at Old Faithful.

Due to the backlash from the 2013 closure, the Park Service changed its government-shutdown contingency plan to allow parks to keep their gates open and allow private concessioners to step up to foot the bill, explained Keller.

“In Gardiner, we’ve been very lucky with Xanterra doing that,” said Barrett. 

She also gave thanks that the Park Service had changed its rules and allowed the park to remain open.

“I can’t even express how grateful we are that they’ve been able to do that,” she said.

But it’s not just the concessioners, said Barrett. Guides and others who live near and rely on the park have also stepped up, picking up trash, supplying toilet paper to outhouses, and helping to make sure visitors comply with park rules and laws, which are still in effect. So far, she said, she hasn’t heard of any major law violations or of people damaging park resources.

Both Barrett and Keller said that, under the shutdown, there are fewer law enforcement rangers patrolling the park.

“There isn’t enforcement like there is normally,” said Keller. “You don’t have officers out patrolling the road like you would normally.”

However, three rangers in patrol vehicles could be seen on the highway surrounding Mammoth Hot Springs Wednesday evening. One ranger, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, said he was one of five on duty that night.

Amy Beegle, owner of Easy Tours Yellowstone in West Yellowstone, said she’s continued guiding in the park during the shutdown and has seen a few people get in trouble for trying to illegally enter the park on snowmobiles. She said guides are making sure people are following the rules.

“We know who everybody is and who’s supposed to be there,” Beegle said.

Beegle also makes an effort to pick up the trash and carry toilet paper to make sure guests have a good experience and the park is kept neat, she said.

Some people, however, are definitely noticing the shutdown: Park Service and Forest Service employees. The majority have been furloughed without pay while essential employees — namely, law enforcement rangers and snow plow drivers — are required to work without pay, though after past shutdowns Congress has retroactively compensated furloughed and essential workers.

“It’s not ideal, by any means,” said Barrett. “A lot of people are hurting. It definitely is hurting us on a more local level.”