By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
The reopening Yellowstone National Park to visitors will depend in part on how safe the water is.
That was one of the takeaways from a Zoom news conference held by park Superintendent Cam Sholly on Tuesday afternoon.
The park closed Monday when unprecedented flooding washed away roads and damaged infrastructure throughout Yellowstone, prompting the evacuation of all visitors and shelter-in-place orders for communities surrounding the park.
Because of the considerable damage to infrastructure such as power lines and water and wastewater pipes, lodging properties within Yellowstone National Park won’t be able to reopen anytime soon.
“We’ve been out of power here in Mammoth for about 30 hours, and we’ve had multiple power failures in other parts of the park,” Sholly said. “Because power has been out for as long as it has, we’ve had wastewater treatment facility failures in multiple locations, backup generator failures, reinforcing the decision to move visitors out of park as a good one.”
But all of that infrastructure is going to need to be checked and evaluated before visitors are allowed back in the park, Sholly said.
“The Mammoth Hotel could open,” said Sholly, “but we’ve got substantial damage to water and sewer lines in Mammoth and Gardiner (Montana, the community just north of the park’s administrative offices).”
Mammoth is currently cut off from the north and east, as the Yellowstone River consumed sections of the highway in both directions. However, once the park reopens, visitors could access the community from the south.
“But unless we get the wastewater treatment infrastructure back in place, we won’t bring large numbers of visitors back into Mammoth,” Sholly said.
Sholly noted that once the southern loop of Yellowstone reopens, facilities at Canyon could be open to visitors again, but he said park staff is monitoring the safety of the water there as well.
“Canyon right now, we would include in the reopening of the southern loop,” Sholly said. “We have had high water/wastewater treatment issues there that we’re monitoring, and so before we make a decision to open any of the hotels and properties in the southern loop, or start allowing Xanterra to take reservations for those properties, campgrounds or hotels, we want to make sure that that infrastructure is capable of supporting high numbers of visitors.”
Sholly pointed out that because the rivers in Yellowstone are still running at dangerous levels, evaluating the damage is difficult.
“The water is extremely high,” he said. “We’re not putting teams in harm’s way at this point. When the water subsides, probably early next week, we will be pulling together a large number of people from different agencies around the country to come to Yellowstone and help us assess what the damage is to various infrastructure in the park.
“We’re doing our best job to stabilize the situation until we can get the water down, assess what the damage is,” Sholly continued. “And then we’ll work on a plan together for reopening as it becomes feasible.”
Sholly noted that there are conflicting predictions about this weekend’s weather forecast, explaining that another high water event could occur.
“We still have somewhere around 12 inches of snowpack left,” Sholly said, “and if we get warming temperatures and the right mixture of precipitation like we did Sunday, we could have another flood event coming through Yellowstone in the upcoming four or five days.”
A spokesperson for Governor Mark Gordon said the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security was providing water where it may be needed, in locations such as Pahaska Teepee near the East entrance to Yellowstone.