“The Most Challenging Year” – Yellowstone’s Superintendent on 2020
Written by Andrew-Rossi on February 17, 2021
Superintendent Cam Sholly led Yellowstone National Park thru an unprecedented year but the cooperation of gateway communities, park staff, and visitors made 2020 a success.
There’s not much one can do to prepare for a global pandemic in the United States’ first national park. But that was no excuse for Cam Sholly, who’s served as the superintendent of Yellowstone since 2018.
Sholly isn’t sure exactly how to measure “success” when managing a national park during a pandemic, but he’s confident that Yellowstone got as close as possible to achieving it.
“2020 was probably the most challenging year of my career,” Sholly says. “Our team here in the park and the partners outside the park – including our gateway community partners – all did a terrific job of helping us make 2020 as successful as it could be.”
The challenge Superintendent Sholly faced began in March 2020, when it was decided that the winter season should end early during the initial onslaught of COVID-19. Then, Sholly was tasked with the difficult decision of how to open Yellowstone for the summer season.
Sholly made the decision within extensive consultation with elected officials and gateway community partners in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. There wasn’t much consensus on if, when, and how the park should reopen for the busiest time of the year.
“The two states were in different places. Wyoming was ready and wanting to open, Montana wanted to stay closed. So we came up with a plan with the governors.”
Under this plan, the Wyoming entrances opened on May 19th while the Montana entrances remained closed until the 1st of June. This staggered opening reduced visitation at the beginning of the summer but may have contributed to the unexpected tourism records set later that year.
Tourists flooded into the park in 2020, undeterred by COVID-19 and the numerous other obstacles, expected and unexpected.
In addition to the ongoing construction at Fishing Bridge and between Tower Junction and Canyon Village, Yellowstone witnessed a sizeable wildfire near Old Faithful and a 3,000-gallon gasoline tanker spill. These incidents caused traffic slowdowns and temporary road closures – but didn’t prevent record-breaking visitation.
“The last two weeks of May, we were at about 22% of normal visitation throughout the park. About the middle of June, we were about 50% of normal. Staring the first or second week of July, our vehicle entries into the park overtook the 2019 numbers and never looked back,” the superintendent says.
In 2020, Yellowstone saw its second-busiest August on record and the busiest September and October in its history. The year’s overall visitation was 3.8 million people, only slightly less than the 4 million visitors seen in 2019.
Sholly sees this as a success not only for the park but the gateway communities and the businesses that subside on Yellowstone’s influx of summer tourism.
“I think that if you were to poll the businesses and stakeholders who were very concerned about whether the park would reopen in the spring, most of them would say it was a pretty successful year. We balanced keeping the park open. We never fully reopened the park. We had a lot of challenges. But I think we did a pretty good job.”
One of the victories of 2020 was the widespread testing of park staff and concessionaires for COVID-19. Sholly credits this success to the resource and cooperation of the Park Counties of Wyoming and Montana.
In 2020, there was a total of around 60 positive cases amongst Yellowstone staff between May and December – in a workforce of about 3,000 people.
“We didn’t have our first park service positive test until Sept. 25 – over four months after we opened,” Sholly says.
The winter season is on track to continue uninterrupted, with all the park entrances (except the North Entrance in Gardiner) set to close on April 15. Unless there are new surges of COVID-19, the summer season should begin at its usual time in mid-May.
Superintendent Sholly says internal discussions on what 2021 will look like in Yellowstone are ongoing. Details will be released once a plan is finalized.
Many hope that everything will be open this summer, but it seems people will keep coming to Yellowstone National Park regardless of what amenities are available. In the meantime, Superintendent Sholly takes pride in the definite successes of 2020.