Yellowstone National Park is celebrating its 150th anniversary and faces its biggest challenge in decades.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo — Established in 1872 when the United States was recovering from the Civil War, Yellowstone was the first national park to be dubbed America’s Best Idea. Now, home to bubbling geysers, thundering waterfalls and some of the country’s richest and most diverse wildlife, it faces its greatest challenge in decades.
Floodwaters have obliterated numerous bridges, washed out miles of roads and closed the park this week as it nears peak tourist season during its 150-year celebration. Nearby communities were inundated and hundreds of homes submerged as the Yellowstone River and its tributaries raged.
The extent of the damage is still being counted by Yellowstone officials, but based on other national park disasters, it could take years and cost more than $1 billion to rebuild in an environmentally sensitive landscape where construction season lasts only from the spring thaw to snowfall lasts for the first time.
Based on what park officials revealed and Associated Press images and video taken by a helicopter, the most damage appeared to be on the roads, particularly the freeway connecting the park’s north entrance in Gardiner, Montana Joins the park’s offices in Mammoth Hot Springs. Much of the road was undermined and washed away when the Gardner River burst its banks. Perhaps hundreds of footbridges on hiking trails have been damaged or destroyed.
“This will not be an easy rebuild,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said earlier in the week as he highlighted photos of massive road gaps in the steep gorge. “I don’t think it will be wise to invest potentially tens of millions of dollars or however much to repair a road that could face a similar flooding event in the future.”
Restoring human imprints in a national park is always a delicate endeavor, especially as a changing climate makes natural disasters more likely. Increasingly violent wildfires are occurring, including one last year that destroyed bridges, cabins and other infrastructure in Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.
Flooding has already wreaked havoc at other parks and poses a threat to virtually all of the more than 400 national parks, according to a 2009 report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.
Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state was closed for six months after the worst flooding in its history in 2006. Damage to roads, trails, campgrounds, and buildings was estimated at $36 million.
Yosemite Valley in California’s Yosemite National Park has flooded several times, but suffered its worst damage 25 years ago when heavy rains on a large blanket of snow — a scenario similar to the Yellowstone flood — flooded campgrounds, flooded hotel rooms, and undermined bridges and sections of the street and knocked out power and sewer lines. The park was closed for more than two months.
According to a 2013 report, Congress allocated $178 million in emergency funds — a staggering sum for park infrastructure at the time — and additional funds eventually surpassed $250 million.
But reconstruction, once estimated to take four to five years, has dragged on for 15 years, in part due to environmental lawsuits over a protected river corridor and a lengthy bureaucratic planning and review process.
It’s not clear if Yellowstone would face the same obstacles, although recreating the road that passes near Mammoth Hot Springs, where steaming water gushes over an otherworldly series of stone terraces, poses a challenge.
It’s created by a unique natural formation of underground tubes and vents that push the hot water to the surface, and would be just one of many natural wonders that crews would need to watch out for to avoid disturbing them, said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Diversity.
In addition to the formation itself, there are also microbes and insects that thrive in the area that are found almost nowhere else. And the park must avoid damaging archaeological or cultural artifacts in the area with a rich Native American history.
“They have to look at all the resources that the park is supposed to protect and try to do this project as carefully as possible, but they’re also going to try to move pretty quickly,” Hartl said.
Diverting the road that hugged the Gardner River could be an opportunity to better protect the waterway and the fish and other species that thrive there from oil and other microscopic pollution from passing vehicles, Hartl said.
“The river will be healthier because of it,” he said.
The Yosemite flood was seen by the park as an opportunity to reconsider its planning and not necessarily rebuild in the same locations, said Frank Dean, president and executive director of the Yosemite Conservancy and a former park warden.
Some facilities were relocated outside of the flood plain and some campgrounds that had been inundated by the flood were never restored. At Yosemite Lodge, cabins scheduled for removal in the 1980s flooded and had to be removed.
“The tide took them all down like a precision blow,” Dean said. “I won’t say it’s a good thing, but providence came in and made the decision for her.”
Yellowstone’s recovery comes as a rapidly growing number of people queue to visit the country’s national parks, even as a backlog of deferred maintenance budgets grows to tens of billions of dollars. The park should already be funded under the Great American Outdoors Act, a 2020 law passed by Congress that authorizes nearly $3 billion for maintenance and other projects on public lands. National parks and other public lands receive a similar amount annually for five years.
Now another cash injection is needed for more urgent repairs, which could reach at least $1 billion, according to estimates by Emily Douce, director of operations and park finance at the National Parks Conservation Association.
The southern half of the park is expected to reopen next week, allowing visitors to flock to Old Faithful, the rainbow-colored Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with its majestic waterfall.
But the flood-damaged north end may not reopen this year, preventing visitors from seeing Tower Fall and Lamar Valley, one of the best places in the world to see wolves and grizzly bears. On some days during peak season, an animal sighting can cause thousands of people to park on the side of the road hoping to catch a glimpse.
Reopening some of these areas depends on how quickly washed-out roads can be repaired, fallen trees cleared and mudslides cleared up.
The maintenance of the approximately 750 kilometers of roadway throughout the park is an important task. Much of the roadway was originally designed for stagecoaches, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of public affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Part of the effort over the last few decades has been to stabilize the road so that heavier vehicles can travel safely,” she said.
The hotel is at a high altitude where eight months of snow and cold weather are not uncommon and there are many small earthquakes, road surfaces do not last as long and road workers have a short window to complete projects. A recently completed road construction site resulted in closures for about two years.
“I think it will probably be a few years before the park is fully back to normal,” Hartl said.
https://www.fox43.com/article/news/nation-world/yellowstones-flood-damage-could-cost-billions-take-years-to-rebuild/507-71d178aa-9048-4ab1-a76b-b1b780cadfca How much will Yellowstone’s flood cost?