Uncertainty surrounds Yellowstone’s impact on local tourism

BUFFALO — There's no doubt among local stakeholders that Yellowstone's closure will affect tourism in the area. They're just not quite sure how. Flooding shut down Yellowstone National Park last week, with only partial openings on the near-term horizon. As a result, tourists have had to modify their plans - but no one knows how that will impact local businesses.

"It's just so early we don't really know what's going to happen," said Nathan Schiffer, manager at Indian Campground. 

Schiffer said that on the first day that Yellowstone closed, the campground received a wave of cancellations and new reservations. 

In a normal year, visitors traveling to Yellowstone make up around half of Indian Campground's business, Schiffer said. The park, in the midst of its 150-year anniversary celebrations, experienced numerous mud-slides and rockslides, and portions of the road in the north section of the park have been washed away, according to information released by the National Park Service. 

Flooding also affected communities to the north of Yellowstone, such as Gardiner, Montana, and Cooke City, Montana.

Thousands were evacuated, packing hotels in gateway communities around the park. Other vacationers, on their way to Yellowstone, have had to cancel plans or shift direction mid-trip.

Laura Thorn, who has worked at Buffalo's visitor information center for nine years, said the center's parking lot was full the day Yellowstone's evacuation began. 

Since then, many have come to the visitor center to ask questions, both about what's going on at Yellowstone and what to do now that Yellowstone is closed.

Buffalo is famously a stopping point between the Black Hills and Yellowstone National Park, and, in a normal year, the majority of visitors Thorn sees are headed in that direction, she said. 

"I would say if we got 100 people in the building, 75 of them would be on their way to

Yellowstone," Thorn said.

In the days after the flooding began, the Wyoming Office of Tourism released alternatives for the many other attractions in the state, encouraging visitors to explore other sites during their time in the state. 

Some vacationers have stopped in Buffalo, Thorn said, using it as a basecamp to explore the surrounding area rather than continuing west. Others have continued on to Cody.

 Either way, Thorn said, she tries to guide people toward Wyoming attractions and get them to stop at local businesses.

In Johnson County, places such as the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum and the Bighorn National Forest have seen a marked increase in visitation since Yellowstone closed.

"We know we're getting some traffic that wouldn't have otherwise come through Buffalo," said Sylvia Bruner, director at the museum. 

But it's unclear how long that will last, she said. 

Visitation at Yellowstone for the rest of the summer is bound to change. 

Beginning June 22, park officials implemented an "alternating license plate system," in which visitors will be granted entry to the south end of the park based on whether the final digit of their license plate is even or odd. The north loop of the park will be closed for the next two weeks, and the roads to the north and northeast entrances will be closed indefinitely, according to a press release.

Those changes mean Yellowstone won't be able to accommodate as many guests as it would normally, which could affect the number of people who visit Buffalo.

"That is the part I don't want to think about," Thorn said. 

Stakeholders in the tourism industry said Yellowstone travelers make up a large portion of their business during a normal year. Travel as a whole brought $63 million to Johnson County in 2021 and generated $1.4 million in local sales tax, according to a study released by the Wyoming Office of Tourism. 

Ann Kavanagh, owner of Deer Park campground for the past 43 years, compared the flooding to the Yellowstone fires in 1988. 

During what were the largest recorded fires in Yellowstone's history, around 36 percent of the park was affected, according to the National Park Service. The first year after the fires, Johnson County saw a precipitous decline in tourists, Kavanagh said. But the next year, more people than ever traveled to Yellowstone in order to see the damage. 

Kavanagh said she expects the same thing to happen with the flooding.

In the coming months, Bruner said, it's possible some people will divert their trips to spend more time in Johnson County. Others may cancel their trips and not travel to Wyoming at all. 

But how many of each kind of person there are, where they end up going and how it will affect Johnson County is unknown. 

"If we've learned anything, it's to not try to predict the future," Bruner said.