CODY — Yellowstone National Park is beginning to set reopening plans in motion, even before the floodwaters recede.
The entire park will remain closed through the weekend, with the less-damaged southern loop now expected to open Monday at the earliest, Superintendent Cam Sholly said Wednesday, during a call with residents and tourists in Cody. The park closed all entrances earlier this week as the floodwaters washed out roads, destroyed bridges and turned gateway communities into temporary islands.
About 15,000 visitors left the park amid the disaster, which could take months or even years to fully recover from.
Officials will likely institute a reservation system that limits the number of visitors who enter to avoid overcrowding and damage to infrastructure in the southern loop. The details of the plan — including how many vehicles will be allowed through each of the three surviving entrances — aren’t determined yet.
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Sholly hopes Yellowstone’s gateway communities can help park staff figure out how to keep enough tourists coming to sustain local businesses, but not attract more people than half the park can hold.
“We’re not necessarily trying to find perfect here,” he said. “My goal is to balance access to Yellowstone to the best degree possible.”
If the park opens early next week, it will be without reservations. That system could take weeks to set up. During that gap, the availability of overnight accommodations inside the park will probably be reduced.
There’s a lot left to figure out.
“We will work through this together,” he said during the call.
Cody’s tourism workers — hotel owners, tour guides, outfitters — sought specifics. How long would the park require reservations? Would bus tours scheduled next week be able to get in? Did the road that runs between the northern and southern loops survive the flooding?
Sholly answered what he could. Reservations may last into next season, depending on how difficult repairs in the northern loop turn out to be. Buses and other large vehicles will probably be allowed on park roads once they reopen to the public. And the road that divides the two loops should also be accessible at that time.
His emphasis on keeping communications open with the communities most affected by the closure seemed to be received well by those on the other end of the line.
“You guys have a lot to do,” one resident said, “but we’re all here to support you.”
Less than three days after the park closed, Sholly wasn’t able to provide much certainty; officials are still waiting for the flooding to come back down so they can assess the full extent of the damage. And park officials are bracing for the possibility of additional flooding over the weekend.
But being included in the decision-making process, and told what might come next, provided a relief for those whose livelihoods are on the line.
“Thank you so much for this,” one business owner said. “You would not believe the sleepless nights we’ve had.”
Photos: Aerial views of flooding on the Yellowstone River on Monday
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism