Yellowstone, created in 1872 when the United States recovered from the Civil War, was the first of the national parks referred to as America’s best idea. Now home to flowing geysers, thundering waterfalls and some of the country’s most abundant and diverse wildlife, it faces its biggest challenge in decades.
Floodwaters wiped out numerous bridges this week, washed away miles of roads and closed the park as it approached the peak tourist season 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 due to other national park disasters it could take years and cost more than $ 1 billion to rebuild in an environmentally sensitive landscape where construction season only ranges from spring thawing to the first run. snowfall.
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Based on what park officials revealed and Associated Press footage and videos taken from a helicopter, the greatest damage appears to be on roads, especially on the highway leading to the park’s northern entrance in Gardiner, Montana. connected to the park’s offices in Mammoth Hot Springs. Large sections of the road were undermined and washed away when the Gardner River jumped its banks. Hundreds of footbridges on trails may have been damaged or destroyed.
“It’s not going to be an easy rebuild,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said earlier in the week, highlighting photos of massive gaps of road in the steep canyon. “I do not think it’s going to be smart to potentially invest, you know, tens of millions of dollars, or whatever it is, in repairing a road that may be subject to a similar flood event in the future.”
Relocating a human imprint into a national park is always a delicate operation, especially as a changing climate makes natural disasters more likely. Increasingly intense wildfires are occurring, including one last year that destroyed bridges, huts and other infrastructure in Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.
Floods have already caused major damage in other parks and are a threat to virtually all of the more than 400 national parks, a report by The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization found in 2009.
Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state closed for six months after the worst floods 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 flooded several times, but suffered its worst damage 25 years ago when heavy rain showers on top of a large snowpack – a scenario similar to the Yellowstone Flood – flooded campgrounds under water, hotel rooms , bridges and parts washed out. of the road, and power and sewer lines knocked out. The park was closed for more than two months.
Congress allocated $ 178 million to 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 rebuilding effort, which was once estimated to last four to five years, was delayed for 15 years, in part due to environmental disputes over a protected river corridor and a lengthy bureaucratic planning and review process.
It’s not clear if Yellowstone will face the same obstacles, though the reconstruction of the road that runs near Mammoth Hot Springs, where steaming water bubbles over an otherworldly series of rock terraces, presents a challenge.
It is created by a unique natural formation of underground pipes and vents that push the hot water to the surface, and will be just one of many natural wonders that teams must be careful not to disturb, said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs said at the Center. for Biological Diversity.
Along with the formation itself, there are also microbes and insects that thrive in the environment that occur almost nowhere else. And the park will have to avoid damaging any archaeological or cultural artifacts in the area with a rich Native American history.
“They’ll 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’re also going to try to go pretty fast,” Hartl said.
Having to divert the road that encircles 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 coming from passing vehicles, Hartl said.
“The river will be healthier for that,” 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 CEO of the Yosemite Conservancy and a former park ranger.
Some facilities were moved outside the floodplain and some campsites that were immersed in the flood were never restored. At Yosemite Lodge, huts planned for removal in the 1980s were overrun and had to be removed.
“The flood took them all out like a precision strike,” Dean said. “I’m not going to say it’s a good thing, but the providence came in and made the decision for them.”
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 ten billion dollars. The park was already funded by the Great American Outdoors Act, a 2020 law passed by Congress that authorizes nearly $ 3 billion for maintenance and other projects on public land.
Now it will need another infusion of money for more urgent repairs that could cost Emily Douce, director of operations and park finance at the National Parks Conservation Association, an estimated $ 1 billion.
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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 Yellowstone Grand Canyon and its majestic waterfall.
But the flood-damaged northern tip may not reopen this year, depriving visitors of seeing Tower Fall and Lamar Valley, one of the best places in the world to see wolves and grizzly bears. Some days during the high season, an animal sighting can lead to thousands of people parked along the road hoping to get a glimpse.
Whether some of these areas will be reopened will depend on how quickly washed-up roads can be repaired, felled trees can be removed and mudslides can be cleared up.
Maintaining the approximately 466 miles (750 kilometers) of road throughout the park is a major task. Much of the road was originally designed for hiking trails, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of public affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Part of the effort over the past few decades has been to stabilize the road to make it safer for heavier vehicles to ride on,” she said.
Located at an altitude where snow and cold weather are not uncommon eight months of the year and there are very small earthquakes, road surfaces do not last that long and road crews have a short window to complete projects. One recently completed road work created closures for about two years.
“I think it will probably take a few years before the park is completely back to normal,” Hartl said.