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Despite pandemic, parks draw record visits

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    Missoula, Montana (The Missoulian) — After a freakishly busy summer helping people kayak around some of Montana’s state parks, Glacier Treks owners B.J. and Joli Johnson took October off.

Then winter arrived in Glacier National Park, and their phone started blowing up again.

“The holiday season was non-stop for us,” B.J. said of bookings for guided snowshoe and cross-country ski trips into Glacier. “We had to hire two more guides. We’re up 13% over last December, and we haven’t even had time to calculate January yet.”

That’s on top of a summer kayak tour and rental season that was 74 percent over the year before. The Johnsons went into summer 2020 wondering if their business was going to survive all the COVID-19 pandemic-related economic collapse. They wound up spending much of it on the waters of Flathead Lake guiding clients, because they couldn’t find enough employees to spread the load.

The nationwide stay-at-home orders and social distancing apparently had an opposite effect on public lands last year. Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks both put up impressive visitor numbers. So did Montana state parks, which recorded record visitation.

“December and October blew our 40-year averages out of the water,” Glacier National Park spokeswoman Gina Kerzman said on Friday. “I think COVID is a big reason. People are looking for something to do and get outside.”

Although Glacier’s overall 2020 visitation was just over half its 2019 total at 1.7 million, it has a lot of asterisks in the statistics. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a complete park closure in April and May, resulting in zero visits for those months. And the Blackfeet Indian Reservation imposed COVID safety restrictions on the park’s east side that closed public access to five major entrances.

Nevertheless, Glacier’s October entries came in at 125,544, compared with 2019’s 78,408. November was 50 percent better than 2019, while December was double the previous year at 28,196.

Yellowstone National Park, which was closed for more than a month last spring, had 3.8 million people in 2020, down 5% from 2019, according to National Park Service figures released on Thursday.

Visitation for the months of September and October were the busiest on record. October saw more than 359,000 visitors and September recorded more than 837,000.

The increase in tourism came despite numerous facility closures and restrictions in the park that limited the number of places to stay, eat and learn more about the region. Yellowstone also banned bus traffic, which has conveyed numerous foreign tourists to the park, especially from China.

Yellowstone handled increased cleaning duties and larger crowds with a smaller seasonal staff. Fewer people were hired by the park so those employed could be housed individually to avoid spread of the novel coronavirus.

With or without a pandemic, Yellowstone’s fumaroles, geysers and wildlife remain popular attractions as exhibited by the trend for recreation visits the previous four years: 2019 – 4 million; 2018 and 2017 – 4.11 million; and 2016 – 4.25 million.

Montana’s state parks reported a record number of visitors in 2020, according to a state Fish, Wildlife & Parks report released on Thursday. It showed a 30% increase from 2019, despite temporary closures and declines in group activities at some facilities due to COVID-19.

State park visitation reached 3.4 million people, FWP officials said, adding park attendance has increased 83% over the last decade. The largest monthly increase in 2020 over 2019 was 65% in March, when the parks had 151,911 visitors as opposed to 94,648 the same month the year before.

“The increased amount of people outdoors was evident, and our staff went above and beyond the call of duty to keep our parks safe and accessible,” Beth Shumate, parks division administrator at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said in a news release. “Montana State Parks provided immediate physical and mental health relief throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The state said visitation increased for 77.8% of the 55 state parks in 2020 compared with 2019.

Region 1 in northwest Montana had a 29.6% increase, officials said. Region 2 in western Montana had a 42.6% increase. Region 3 in southwestern Montana had an 8.3% increase. Region 4 in north-central Montana had a 19.4% increase. Region 5 in south-central Montana had a 50.5% increase and Regions 6 and 7 in eastern Montana had a 37.8% increase.

The increases were not seen across the board as officials did note that visitation dipped by 52.8% at Lewis and Clark Caverns, due to a sharp decline in tour offerings. Other parks seeing dips included Clark’s Lookout (-1.3%), Hell Creek (-4.6%), First Peoples Buffalo Jump (-5.1%) and Fort Owen (-6.3%), according to the state report.

Near Helena, Black Sandy State Park saw a 60.2% increase, from 43,241 visitors to 69,288, officials said. Ackley Lake jumped 104.4%, from 32,522 visitors to 66,480, and Missouri Headwaters increased 36.6%, from 51,898 to 70,917.

Officials said the visitation data is based on reported estimates from 45 of Montana’s 55 state parks. They also noted some parks are seasonally closed. And in several instances campgrounds were closed around March 21 due to the state’s COVID-19 directive.

Billings Gazette reporter Brett French and Helena Independent Record reporter Phil Drake contributed to this story.

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Article Topic Follows: National-World

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