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From the Fringe … : Opening nationals parks is needed but complicated for Montana


Last updated 5/15/2020 at 10:42am

We’ve learned a lot about coronavirus in the last couple of months, including how to slow it down, even. But, perhaps the most important thing we’ve learned thus far is, it’s not going away.

So, given that, the virus is here to stay for the foreseeable future, anyway, it only complicates how we, as a society, move forward. In fact, in just about every single choice we have to make, COVID-19 is complicating those choices.

And the same holds true for the re-opening of our two great national parks here in Montana. It’s complicated, but the reality is quite simple. Open Yellowstone and Glacier National Park and get Montana’s biggest economy — tourism — at least up and running again. But in doing so, coronavirus will 100 percent be brought into Montana communities, major airports and train stations, by thousands, perhaps millions of out-of-state residents. 

That’s the bottom line on that. The national parks opening means people will bring coronavirus to Montana, a state that currently has the second-least amount of total cases, and the least amount of active cases in the United States as of Thursday evening.

So, what to do? For me personally, it’s a tough call.

First and foremost, I love Glacier and Yellowstone, and my wife and I visit those parks three, sometimes four times in a given summer. We take spectacular hiking trips that provide memories that are going to last the rest of our lives. So the thought of not being able to do that this summer is heartbreaking. It’s something I can barely wrap my head around.

Secondly, I love our great state of Montana, and I don’t want to see our economy struggling. Montana nets $3.2 billion annually in tourism, and a huge chunk of that is earned during the brief summer seasons of Glacier and Yellowstone. So, opening those parks, even in a limited capacity, would certainly help what is a devastated tourism industry right now.

But is that going to come at a greater cost? That’s the billion-dollar-question none of us can answer right now. It’s going to be more like the canary in the coal mine. We’ll have to see how it all turns out later this year, because, places like Glacier and Yellowstone will open.

In fact, Yellowstone is already opening its Wyoming gates Monday. That state lifted its mandatory 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors, as well as its limits requiring gatherings to be of 10 people or fewer. So, in accordance, Yellowstone will allow tourists to come through the two gates that reside in Wyoming.

However, the three gates to the park that are inside our borders, will remain closed for now.

Farther north, Glacier hasn’t announced a plan to re-open just yet, and, quite frankly, the park has a bit of time on its side. Unlike in Yellowstone, May isn’t really a tourist month in Glacier, and, for the third straight season, it was already announced long ago that, the iconic Going to the Sun Road would not open before June 22, no matter what the weather was like, so the park has some time to figure out how to safely open.

And, in my opinion, both parks will do just that. They will be open with as much safety as possible. Many of the services and amenities we’re used to in both parks will not exist this summer. There will be closures at popular sports where large crowds gather, and, no matter how much it is going to bug tourists, social distancing will be strictly enforced.

In other words, if you plan to go to either park this summer, don’t, for one second, think you’re going to get the experience we’ve all become accustomed too in Yellowstone, or GNP. It isn’t going to happen. It won’t happen because safety is going to take precedence over fun.

Still, no matter how safe the National Park Service makes us this summer inside the borders, it can’t protect us all from COVID-19. There is no way to protect small Montana gateway communities like West Yellowstone, West Glacier, St. Mary’s, Gardiner and others from people from all corners of the country and beyond bringing coronavirus into those communities. That’s a fact that anyone who lives or works in those communities, and anyone who travels to them this summer, is going to have to live with. If Glacier and Yellowstone are open for business, and in some capacity they will be, then coronavirus is going to come to both places. It’s that simple.

And that fact goes back to why issues like these are so complicated. Glacier and Yellowstone are so important and so vital to Montana and Montanans, but, this summer, that vitality, no matter how cautious the NPS and the governments of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are going to be, will come with a price, and that price is, COVID-19 being brought into our state. That fact certainly has me confused on how to proceed, and, time will tell just what the consequences will be from having our two amazing national parks open this summer will be.

But, as someone who loves Glacier and Yellowstone dearly, as someone who loves its great gateway communities, and, as someone who’s heart bleeds for the economic heartache Montana is going through right now, all I can do is, keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best and for better days ahead.


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