Wyoming Tourism Leaders Hoping for ‘Normal’ Summer
Yellowstone, Grand Teton superintendents speak at annual Cody luncheon
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: May 09, 2023
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly was the featured speaker Monday for a National Parks Day luncheon in Cody, an annual event started seven decades ago to kick off the summer tourist season. (Wyoming Truth photo by Ruffin Prevost)
By Ruffin Prevost
Special to the Wyoming Truth
CODY, Wyo. — Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly spent much of his time Monday during an annual tourism industry luncheon in Cody covering his agency’s response to last year’s historic floods that closed entrances from two gateway communities for most of the summer.
The year before, Yellowstone saw its busiest summer ever, as visitors looking to avoid the COVID-19 pandemic flocked to the great outdoors. In 2020, the park was closed to visitors for two months in the spring, as officials worked to cope with the early stages of a fast-spreading virus before vaccines were widely available and best health practices were still being debated and developed.
Sholly began his term as superintendent in October 2018, with 2019 bringing what was then the busiest year on record for Yellowstone.
So it made sense when Sholly actually knocked on wood while telling a room full of almost 100 tourism business leaders and local officials that he hoped “this year is going to be outstanding, knock on wood there’s not some other major thing that happens. We’ve been through a lot together. None of us can describe what normal is.”
But a normal tourist season is exactly what attendees at the 71st National Parks Day luncheon said they were hoping for. With the East Gate to Yellowstone traditionally opening on the first Friday in May, the annual gathering has become an important way to foster ties between community leaders in Cody and the staff and administrators of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Sholly and Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, Jr. also attended a Sunday evening cocktail reception and meetings throughout Monday with local business and government leaders to share information and hear feedback before the summer rush of tourists arrive.
Praise for flood recovery work
Sholly praised his Yellowstone maintenance and operations crews, as well as the major contractors who worked last summer to rebuild roads washed out by spring floods.
He said he also fielded a lot of questions about how the floods affected wildlife in the park, and recalled a helicopter ride over the Lamar Valley to survey flood damage. From the air, he saw approximately 20 bison sprawled out to warm themselves on a closed section of the Northeast Entrance Road.
“The wildlife did fine,” he said of the periods without vehicles on the roads. “I think they enjoyed last year a little bit.”
But with the economies of gateway communities being so closely tied to the national parks, the unexpected ups and downs of the last few years have driven home the need for close cooperation between the National Park Service and gateway towns like Cody and Jackson.
A peer-reviewed visitor spending analysis conducted by economists at the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey showed that 4.9 million Yellowstone visitors in 2021 spent over $630 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 8,736 jobs in the local area, and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $834 million.
In Jackson, 2021 was so busy that some tourism insiders finished the year wondering how much might be too much, Jenkins said.
“We felt a lot of challenges with that level of visitation,” he said. “Businesses really struggled with finding employees.”
Businesses had trouble finding supplies and maintaining high levels of service, and there were “substantially higher incidences of visitors being rude to employees because they were so frustrated by the situation,” he said.
With visitor numbers expected to be lower this year than 2021, but likely to rise again over the next several years, Jenkins said gateway communities have already gotten a preview of what a “new normal” may look like in the near future.
Jenkins said he is working in Grand Teton to do research and have conversations with staff and community members to revisit what worked and what didn’t in 2021, so they can determine how to better handle the inevitable increase in crowds.
Both superintendents said affordable housing was the biggest stumbling block to maintaining adequate staffing levels. Moving the needle on that problem will be complicated and involve a number of factors far outside the control of the Park Service, they said.
Optimistic for summer
Despite the challenges, many were optimistic for a good summer, including Covered Ground Tours founder Colter Jones, now entering his third year as a guided tour operator based in Cody.
Advance bookings are up over last year, said Jones, who has bought an additional van to handle the increase in business.
He was among those making the trip into Yellowstone from Cody over the weekend.
Jones said much of the park was still covered in snow, and Yellowstone Lake, the largest alpine lake in North America, was still frozen, as is typical at this time of year.
Among the highlights of his trip were wildlife sightings along the North Fork Highway between Cody and the East Entrance, and several harlequin ducks at LeHardy Rapids, near Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley, a favorite spot for migrating birds in May.
Jones said the Norris Geyser Basin was closed temporarily because grizzly bears were feeding on several bison carcasses. Some bison die during difficult winters, especially if they’re unable to find sufficient forage under heavy snow and ice, he said.
But large sections of the Lamar Valley were free of snow, he said. Among the shaggy, older bison there who survived the winter were a few “red dogs,” newborn bison calves whose clay-colored coats make them a favorite spring sighting in Yellowstone.