The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

October 9, 2013

Woman says elderly tourists at Yellowstone forced to stay inside hotel, bus


CNHI News Service

SALISBURY, Mass. — Pat Vaillancourt went on a trip last week to see some of America’s greatest treasures. Instead, the Salisbury, Mass., resident said she and others on her tour bus witnessed an ugly spectacle in Yellowstone National Park, where tourists were not allowed to leave their hotel rooms or tour bus while inside the shuttered national park.

Vaillancourt was one of thousands of people who found themselves in a national park as the federal government shutdown went into effect on Oct. 1. For many hours, her tour group, which included senior citizen visitors from Japan, Australia, Canada and the United States, was not allowed to leave their park hotel.

The tourists were treated harshly by armed park employees, she said, so much so that some of the foreign tourists with limited English skills thought they were under arrest.

"We've become a country of fear, guns and control," said Vaillancourt. "It was like they brought out the armed forces. Nobody was saying, 'we’re sorry,' it was all like — " as she clenched her fist and banged it against her forearm.

Park spokesman Al Nash told the Livingston (Mont.) Enterprise that when the park is closed, it's closed to all recreational use. The few park staff members who remain are involved in basic health and safety issues.

"We don't have staff on duty to deal with any ordinary operational issues," Nash said last week. 

Vaillancourt recounted one incident in which her tour bus stopped along a road inside the park as a large herd of bison passed, and tourists filed out to take photos. She said an armed ranger came by and ordered them to get back in, saying they couldn't "recreate." The tour guide, who had paid a $300 fee the day before to bring the group into the park, argued that the seniors weren't "recreating," just taking photos.

"She responded and said, 'Sir, you are recreating,' and her tone became very aggressive," Vaillancourt said.

The seniors quickly filed back onboard and the bus went to the Old Faithful Inn, the park's lodge located next to the park’s most famous site, Old Faithful geyser. That was as close as they could get to the famous site — barricades were erected around Old Faithful, and the seniors were told to stay inside the hotel.

By Oct. 3, the park, which sees an average of 4,500 visitors a day, was nearly empty, Vaillancourt said.

Vaillancourt's tour guide, Gordon Hodgson, accused the park service of "Gestapo tactics" in an interview with the Enterprise.

"The national parks belong to the people," he told the Enterprise. "This isn't right."

Calls to Yellowstone's communications office were not returned, as most of the personnel have been furloughed.

Details for this story were reported by The Newburyport (Mass.) News.