Flood recovery in Yellowstone could take years and cost billions

Founded in 1872 when the United States was recovering from the Civil War, Yellowstone was the first of the national parks to be called America’s Best Idea. Now, home to gushing geysers, thundering waterfalls and some of the country’s richest and most diverse wildlife, it faces the biggest challenge in decades.

This week’s floods wiped out many bridges, washed away roads and closed the park as the peak tourist season approached during its 150th anniversary celebrations. Nearby communities were flooded and hundreds of homes were flooded as the Yellowstone River and its tributaries raged.

The extent of the damage is still being calculated by Yellowstone officials, but other disasters in the national park could take years and cost more than $ 1 billion to rebuild in an environmentally sensitive landscape, where the construction season lasts only from spring thaw to first snowfall. .

Based on what park officials have revealed, and photos and video from the Associated Press taken by helicopter appear to have caused the most damage to roads, especially the highway connecting the park’s northern entrance to Gardiner, Montana, with offices. at the park in Mammoth Hot Springs. Large sections of the road were undermined and swept away when the Gardner River jumped its banks. Hundreds of footbridges may have been damaged or destroyed.

“This is not going to be an easy recovery,” Superintendent Kam Sholi said earlier this week, highlighting photos of huge gaps in the steep canyon. “I don’t think it would be wise to invest potentially, you know, tens of millions of dollars, or as much as that, in repairing a road that could be the subject of a similar flood event in the future.”

Restoring a human footprint in a national park is always a delicate operation, especially as a changing climate makes natural disasters more likely. There are growing forest fires, including one last year that destroyed bridges, cabins and other infrastructure in the volcanic Lassen National Park in Northern California.

The floods have already caused significant damage to other parks and are a threat to almost all of the more than 400 national parks, found a report by The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization in 2009

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state was closed for six months after the worst flood in its history in 2006. Damage to roads, trails, campsites and buildings was estimated at $ 36 million.

Yosemite Valley in California’s Yosemite National Park has been flooded several times, but suffered its worst damage 25 years ago when torrential rains on a large snow cover – a scenario similar to the Yellowstone flood – flooded campsites, flooded hotel rooms, washed bridges and sections of road and interrupted power lines and sewerage. The park was closed for more than two months.

Congress allocated $ 178 million in emergency funds – a huge amount for park infrastructure at the time – and additional funding eventually exceeded $ 250 million, according to a 2013 report.

But the restoration effort, once estimated to last four to five years, has dragged on for 15, in part due to environmental lawsuits over a protected river corridor and a lengthy bureaucratic planning and review process.

It is unclear whether Yellowstone will face the same obstacles, although the reconstruction of the road that passes near Mammoth Hot Springs, where water vapor bubbles over an unearthly series of stone terraces, is a challenge.

It is created from a unique natural formation of underground pipes and vents that push hot water to the surface and would be just one of many natural wonders that crews should be careful not to disturb, said Brett Hartle, director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Sciences. diversity.

Along with the formation itself, there are microbes and insects that grow in the environment, located almost nowhere else. And the park will have to avoid damaging any archaeological or cultural artifacts in the area with a rich Indian history.

“They will have to look at all the resources the park is designed to protect and try to do this project as carefully as possible, but they will also try to do it pretty quickly,” Hartle said.

Redirecting the road that embraced the Gardner River could be an opportunity to better protect the waterway and fish and other species that thrive there from oil and other microscopic contaminants that come from passing vehicles, Hartle said.

“The river will be healthier for that,” he said.

The Yosemite flood was seen by the park as an opportunity to rethink its planning, not necessarily to rebuild it, said Frank Dean, president and CEO of Yosemite Conservation and a former park ranger.

Some facilities have been relocated off the floodplain, and some campsites that were submerged in the flood have never been rebuilt. At Yosemite Lodge, the cabins that were planned to be removed in the 1980s were flooded and had to be removed.

“The flood brought them out like a precision strike,” Dean said. “I will not say that it is a good thing, but providence came and made the decision for them.

The recovery of Yellowstone comes with a rapidly growing number of people queuing up to visit the country’s national parks, even as tens of billions of dollars are falling behind the maintenance budget. The park was now to be funded by the Great American Outdoors Act, a 2020 law passed by Congress that allows nearly $ 3 billion for maintenance and other public land projects.

There will now be another infusion of money for more urgent repairs, which Emily Doss, director of operations and financing of parks at the National Park Conservation Association, estimates could reach at least $ 1 billion.

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 Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon and its majestic waterfall.

But the flood-damaged northern end may not reopen this year, depriving visitors of Tower Fall and Lamar Valley, one of the world’s best places for wolves and grizzly bears. Some days during the high season, watching an animal can lead to thousands of people parked on the side of the road, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Whether some of these areas will be reopened will depend on how quickly washed roads can be repaired, downed trees removed and landslides cleared.

Maintaining approximately 466 miles (750 kilometers) of road in the park is a major task. Much of the road was originally designed for stagecoaches, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of public affairs at the Association for the Protection of National Parks.

“Part of the effort over the past few decades has been to stabilize the road to make it safer for heavier vehicles to travel on it,” she said.

Located at high altitudes, where snow and cold weather are not uncommon eight months a year and there are very few earthquakes, the road surfaces do not last that long and road crews have a short window to complete projects. A recently completed road job led to a closure in about two years.

“I think it will probably be a few years before the park is fully back to normal,” Hartle said.

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