YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — A grassroots protest Sunday afternoon at the East Entrance to Yellowstone National Park was a study in contrasts, as environmentally minded nature-lovers joined Constitution-quoting small government advocates in showing support for the park, and to demand a solution to the government shutdown that has dragged on for two weeks.
Despite temperatures in the low 40s and sporadic drizzle, approximately 75 people gathered for a half-hour demonstration during which anyone was allowed to speak, and that concluded with a spontaneous singing of “God Bless America.”
“I’m just sick of the politics in D.C. and figured it was time to take a stand,” said Rachel Howard, of Cody. Her daughter, Jordan, 7, was one of about a dozen kids who put a compelling human face on the park closure.
Most who showed up Sunday made the more than 100-mile round trip from Cody, Wyo., while some traveled from even farther away.
For Buddy Valentine, who works at Shoshone Lodge, a nearby guest ranch in the Shoshone National Forest, the trip was just a 10-minute drive. But Valentine said he felt compelled to show up on behalf of those whose vacations have been wrecked by the shutdown.
Valentine got to know a family who had come to Yellowstone to spread their father’s ashes after his cremation, but were turned away from the closed park. Shoshone Lodge staffers escorted the family to a peaceful spot in the nearby Shoshone Forest where they held a brief ceremony at the alternate site, he said.
“It breaks your heart,” Valentine said. “All of these people have been saving and planning, and none of them have an enormous amount of money to make the trip again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Sunday’s protest grew out of a Facebook discussion started by Rick Satterthwaite, 56, a former pastor from Cody now working toward a career as a counselor. Picking up on Satterthwaite’s online comments, Eva Linton, 30, a doula from Powell, Wyo. set up a Facebook group to organize a weekend protest. The online group Protest FOR Yellowstone National Park grew quickly, and had more than 760 members as of Sunday afternoon.
Satterthwaite and Linton met in person for the first time Sunday at the East Gate.
“Government doesn’t work for the people anymore,” Satterthwaite told the assembled crowd.
A few protestors lamented the lack of any elected officials at the event, despite an effort by organizers to invite a wide range of state and local office holders.
Satterthwaite urged everyone to contact Wyoming’s Congressional delegation to demand a solution to the shutdown. Together with Linton, Satterthwaite said he worked hard to organize a family-friendly gathering that avoided making partisan political proclamations about the dysfunction in Washington.
Some of the protestors walked past the barricades that blocked vehicle access into Yellowstone and wandered a few hundred yards into the park along the East Entrance Road.
But the entire assembly was technically inside the park’s boundary, which begins well before the vehicle entrance, and is marked only by a small metal sign along the road’s shoulder.
Only two park rangers were visible during the protest, and they did not enforce the closure, declining to cite those who walked past the gates.
“We’re here to make sure the park is protected and that there’s reasonable order, and to answer any questions,” said Tim Reid, Yellowstone’s chief ranger.
Reid was joined by Lake District Ranger Brad Ross, who said rangers had issued no citations for trespassing at the East Gate since the park closed Oct. 1.
The National Park Service has issued approximately a half-dozen citations for trespassing since the park closed, Reid said, mainly for what he called “pretty egregious violations.” Most transgressions have been handled through warnings and education, he said.
Reid said similar protests were expected at other park entrances, and that Park Service workers understood public frustration with the closure.
There was mostly support and respect expressed Sunday for those Park Service workers who remain on duty as essential employees, working mainly in law enforcement and public safety.
While Sunday’s protest was made up primarily of local residents, there has been no shortage of outrage in recent days from out-of-town visitors whose Yellowstone vacations have been disrupted, said Cody Country Chamber of Commerce executive director Scott Balyo.
“The reaction has ranged from disgust and resignation to outright anger,” Balyo said by telephone Thursday.
Local businesses have been hit hard by the shutdown as well. More than 19,000 visitors passed through the East Gate during October 2012, Balyo said, “and a large majority of them spent some amount of money in our local economy.”
In the first 10 days of the shutdown, Yellowstone has been closed to what would typically be nearly 100,000 visitors, according to a statement released Thursday by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
That translates to almost $9.5 million in lost visitor dollars affecting more than 5,500 directly related jobs, based on National Park Service visitor data and economic analysis by the nonpartisan research group Headwater Economics of Bozeman, Mont.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].