Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, Sen. Steve Daines and Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly discuss the state and federal response to flooding in Gardiner on June 17, 2022. Credit: Amanda Eggert / MTFP

Newly returned from a personal trip in Italy, Gov. Greg Gianforte met with stakeholders and addressed the public in Gardiner Friday morning, imploring tourists to visit southwestern Montana to support its businesses following flooding that devastated three Montana counties and forced Yellowstone National Park to close this week.

Gianforte, along with Sen. Steve Daines, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly and Federal Emergency Management Association Response and Recovery Assistant Administrator Anne Bink took comments and questions from community members before a standing-room-only crowd at Gardiner High School. The existing and projected economic impacts of the park’s closure were front and center in the conversation, with multiple business owners emphasizing their desire for a swift reopening of the northern park entrance, and, in the interim, providing park access for non-motorized recreation like horseback tours and fly-fishing trips.

“You’ve been through hell, and I’m here to listen today,” Gianforte said to the more than 200 people assembled at the school. 

The governor also said he’s doing what he can to reopen the northern loop of the park that connects Gardiner, Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City as quickly as possible, though neither he nor Sholly could offer a specific timeline for when that might happen. 

The southern end of the park in Wyoming is expected to open late next week, Sholly said.

One motel owner, Chelsea DeWeese with the Yellowstone River Motel, presented a thick stack of notes at the roundtable representing the cancellations she’s received since Monday. The closure, she said, was forcing her to make hard decisions about laying off employees, many of whom she’s known for years and considers friends. The park last closed in 2020 in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The only thing I can compare this to is 2020, but instead of 48 weeks, this is happening to us in 48 hours,” DeWeese said. “Lodging will not survive another year of lost revenue in Gardiner.” 

Tourism is a major source of economic activity in Park County, which hosts Yellowstone’s northern entrance, where park staff logged more than 500,000 vehicle entrances last year. According to the Park County Community Foundation, tourism in the 17,000-resident county generates more than $500 million in revenue annually, with the bulk of it coming out of the busy summer season.

 “No one could have predicted what happened this week. We haven’t seen flooding like this in 100 years.”

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte

Gianforte and Daines repeatedly emphasized that southwestern Montana remains open for business, urging tourists not to cancel their plans and instead consider exploring other opportunities, such as a rafting trip, hot springs visit or fly-fishing excursion in Gardiner or surrounding communities. Gianforte also celebrated the emergency response, noting that there had been no flood-related deaths or serious injuries reported this week.

The governor avoided directly addressing what his office has now confirmed was a personal, private trip to Italy that kept him out of the country from Saturday until Thursday night. He instead focused on efforts to bolster regional tourism tied to Yellowstone National Park, which was repeatedly referred to as the “lifeblood” of the Gardiner community.

“No one could have predicted what happened this week. We haven’t seen flooding like this in 100 years,” Gianforte said in response to a question from a Montana Free Press reporter about whether he would have handled this week’s events differently in hindsight.

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The governor’s overseas travel has been the source of considerable speculation on social media and in political circles over the last week, a period in which communities in Park, Carbon and Stillwater counties have been reeling from record flooding that’s destroyed millions of dollars of infrastructure and kneecapped the Yellowstone tourist season just as it was picking up steam. 

Gianforte’s physical absence from state became public knowledge earlier this week, when members of the media obtained a copy of a state disaster declaration signed by Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras in her capacity as “acting governor.” The governor’s office refused to say where Gianforte was traveling, only allowing that he was out of the country and would return as soon as he could, citing non-specific security concerns. Following his return, a spokesperson confirmed Friday that Gianforte left June 11, the day before flooding began in earnest, on a “long-planned” trip to Italy with his wife, Susan Gianforte.

That statement followed a report identifying Gianforte’s location from Montana-based Newsy correspondent Maritsa Georgiou, who said she obtained an anonymously sourced, time-stamped photo showing Gianforte dining at a restaurant in the Tuscan village of Casole d’Elsa Wednesday evening. Newsy has not shared the image publicly. 

Per the Associated Press, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s only statewide-elected Democrat, hesitated to directly criticize the governor while touring the flood zone in Red Lodge Friday.

“Some could say, ‘Jon, why didn’t you come back Tuesday or Wednesday?’” Tester said, according to the report. “These are hard situations. I don’t know what his circumstances were. … I’ve got a decent working relationship with the governor and want to continue that.”

Gianforte has been working with federal and local officials on responding to the floods from abroad, his office has said, in addition to delegating Juras to visit Red Lodge. The governor wrote the White House on Wednesday to request an expedited federal disaster declaration, which came down from the Biden administration the following day.

In the state’s request for FEMA aid under the Stafford Act, the governor’s office gave an initial estimate of $29 million in damages to transportation infrastructure that cut off already remote mountain communities from aid and one another. 

Bink, with FEMA, said the existing declaration frees up federal funds for public infrastructure, and that the agency was evaluating how it would handle property damage claims from individuals. Gianforte also said the state is exploring opportunities for payroll relief that could be provided through either state or federal coffers, and Daines said he’d started working on a bill to fund Yellowstone National Park-specific repairs, which are approved through a different process.

Daines remarked on how the flooding impacts agricultural producers with damage to private bridges, irrigation infrastructure and crops. Gianforte said state leadership is looking into funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address some of those concerns.

All three members of Montana’s federal delegation, both Democrat and Republican, had written to the White House in support of the disaster declaration. Friday, in a new letter, Tester, Daines and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale urged the Federal Highway Administration to authorize use of its emergency funds to repair damaged roads and bridges. Access to such funding would first require a formal request from the state.

Minority Democratic leaders in the state Legislature have also called for Gianforte to allocate a portion of the available $93 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds earmarked for small business assistance to help Yellowstone gateway communities recover from the damage. 

Gianforte, though, signaled that federal emergency funds are best suited to address the impact of flooding.

“The [ARPA] funding we’ve received has been targeted to rural municipal water and sewer [and] getting broadband in every community. We have a disaster here, and that’s what FEMA’s for — to help with these disaster situations,” Gianforte said.

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