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"We are a tourism town": Yellowstone's gateways wait patiently for economy to return after flooding

Elk in Gardiner, Montana
Posted at 10:36 AM, Sep 27, 2022

GARDINER, Mont. — In towns with a single economic engine, there’s always a risk of that engine shutting down.

In Gardiner, Montana, the main engine has been shut down all summer.

“I’ve been all over the world," said Cary McGary of the town she now calls home. "I’ve been to every continent twice, and I really love this place.”

McGary staked her home in Gardiner, Montana for the same reasons most do: beauty and business.

“We are a tourism town," said Stacey Joy, who owns Wonderland Cafe and Lodge. "We used to be a mining town or a trade town. Now, we are a tourism town.”

Small towns across America often rely on a single economic engine. Gardiner is a gateway town to Yellowstone National Park. McGary leads tours. Joy runs a café and lodge. Sophia Gonzales, this winter, bought a food truck.

“I invested about $35,000 at the end of the day," Gonzales said. “We thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to have lines every single day.'"

Then, the flood hit. Over a long weekend in June, a massive storm and melting snow created historic flooding. It cut off power. It buckled a home. And it collapsed the entrance roads to Yellowstone across Montana, including from Gardiner. The town has been reeling all summer.

"My lodge has been empty from June until maybe just a week or two ago," Joy said.

“We pay for insurance," said McGary, "and we pay for vehicles and equipment and food, and you know, we make all these preparations in good faith. But we really don’t know.”

On its own, this year’s flooding could be seen as a rare event. But in the last decade, Gardiner and so many towns like it have experienced a series of rare events, all of which have threatened or damaged their economies.

In 2013, a government shutdown froze national parks for more than two weeks. Gateway communities lost an estimated $414 million. A five-week shutdown at the end of 2018 reduced the nation’s GDP by $11 billion. The COVID-19 pandemic slashed income everywhere, particularly in places that rely on tourism. All were unforeseen, just like a once-in-a-century flood.

“A client once told me, ‘Plans make God laugh,’ and I laughed too, because it’s kind of true," McGary said. “I’m just a little concerned that we might get forgotten about."

In towns with a single economic engine, there’s always a risk of that engine shutting down. Today in Gardiner, Yellowstone is open through an alternate road with an authorized guide, and the tables at its few restaurants are filled with not those visiting but those who live there.

Beauty abounds, while they wait for business to rebound.

“I’m going to open next year," said Gonzales. "I’m going to try it again and hope that people will come back."