By Ruffin Prevost
GARDINER, MONT. — Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park take for granted that they can stop at a nearby gateway community for a meal, a room or an authentic local experience in a unique and engaging place. But it wasn’t always that way.
When it was first founded, Yellowstone National Park was a vast wonderland in the middle of the last, most remote unsettled wilderness in America, and Gardiner didn’t exist. It become the first gateway community for the first national park. Since then, the town has seen its ups and downs, including in its relations with park managers.
But on Thursday, it was only smiles and fanfare among an impressive lineup of local, state and federal officials who came together to sign and celebrate an agreement that will govern a sweeping reconfiguration of the park’s North Gate and the historic downtown and business districts in Gardiner.
The iconic Roosevelt Arch was the backdrop for solidarity and speeches, along with a little stagecraft that saw dignitaries “arrive” at Gardiner’s Arch Park in a stagecoach and vintage yellow tour bus.
“It’s great to have collaboration,” said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. “The federal government working with state and local entities.”
“We don’t get along that much,” Schweitzer said, joking about the sometimes contentious disputes over issues like bison management and other points of friction between local communities, Montana state government and the National Park Service.
“Well, hell, it’s tough to get along with the federal government,” Schweitzer said to nervous laughter from a mixed crowd of Gardiner tourism leaders, park employees and others. “But in this case, we found a way to work together.”
That may be a rare understatement from the plain-spoken Schweitzer, as the Gardiner Gateway Project agreement is supported by no less than 15 groups, ranging from Gardiner school and business groups to state tourism and commerce organizations to federal land management agencies, all working together to reconfigure the first entryway to the first national park.
Plans call for a reconfigured entry road, new paved parking areas, a safer pedestrian area, a historic downtown walking tour, an amphitheater at Arch Park and a rebuilt Gardiner Depot that highlights the history of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which marketed its early hub to Yellowstone as the Gardiner Gateway.
With the last two years seeing record visitation in Yellowstone, the project is badly needed, said Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk.
More than 200,000 vehicles pass into Yellowstone through Gardiner each year, with the same number exiting the park that way, Wenk said. So it’s important that longstanding traffic issues that cause congestion, delays and pedestrian hazards be fixed.
Wenk said it was a natural fit to connect Park Service plans to reconfigure the entryway with a local vision to reinvigorate Gardiner’s downtown, and that the process “quickly evolved into a Gardiner Gateway Project that we’re proud to be a part of.”
Bill Berg, president of the Greater Gardiner Community Council, said Wenk reached out to the community to explore ways to cooperate on the project, and that the superintendent’s “commitment to the project is real and sincere.”
The broad range of cooperating groups will act as a “team of partners” governed by an agreement that will serve as a framework for “sharing resources, transferring money and rolling up our sleeves and getting to work,” Berg said.
Among the most pressing problems requiring immediate work is congestion around the Roosevelt Arch, where visitors often stop for photos before navigating the narrow passage to proceed into the park. There have been instances where traffic has backed up more than a mile from the arch, stretching across the Yellowstone River, Berg said. The Park Service plans to build a short new bypass road allowing visitors to skip the arch if they choose, as well as reconfigured approaches to better accommodate parking and picture-taking.
For local business owners in Gardiner, the project will offer a chance to highlight the town’s unique history as a frontier outpost. It will also create a new public restroom facility, offering visitors an immediate and visible reason to stop in town on their way into or out of the park.
“The plan for the renewed entrance to the park will certainly be an an opportunity for millions of Americans to stop their car — that’s the key, stop their car — get the kids out and walk up and down the streets of Gardiner and spend money,” said Park County Commissioner Marty Malone.
Tourist dollars pump $2.8 billion annually into Montana’s economy, said Schweitzer, who called Yellowstone National Park “the anchor tenant in the mall of Montana that attracts the most people.”
Joyce Whitaker, a waitress at the Raven Grill in Gardiner, is one of those people who came to Montana because of the lure of Yellowstone National Park.
Whitaker said the Gardiner Gateway Project is something local leaders have been talking about for a while, but she’s pleased to see it taking shape.
“It’s a pretty big deal. I’d like to see them do more with the history of this town,” she said.
“I think the town’s history is an important thing for visitors. and they don’t learn as much about it as they should,” she said.
Whitaker first came to the area four years ago on a vacation from Florida.
“I left the sugar-sand beaches for this, and I just ended up staying,” she said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.