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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
It will take years to fully for Yellowstone National Park to recover from the damage done by the flood that carried off bridges, homes and roads from the northern part of the park on June 13.
That’s the estimate of Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly and others who have been assessing the damage from the flood caused by torrential rainfall and sudden snowmelt nearly one month ago.
“I would suggest it’s somewhere between 3 to 5 years, is what we’re looking at for the permanent, long-term reconstruction solutions to be finished,” Sholly said.
However, Sholly said in a news conference Friday that it’s “nothing short of miraculous” that 93% of the park has re-opened to visitors so soon after the devastating flood.
“I appreciate the support of the states, the counties, the communities that have been so involved in helping us navigate this very difficult situation,” he said.
Significant Financial Hit
Sholly pointed out that because of the closure, the Park did take a significant financial hit.
“Obviously, when you clear out all the hotels and all the revenue that’s in the stores and the restaurants and things like that, there’s a major price tag,” Sholly told Cowboy State Daily. “So we’re looking at what the economic impacts were inside the park, and then we’re also working with the gateways to understand what the impacts of the closure were on the gateways externally as well.”
Expenses range from repairs to wastewater systems to cleanup and road damage, as well as lack of revenue from visitation at each of the gates.
“Our traffic volume right now is down 30% to 40% from 2019,” Sholly said.
Mike Keller, General Manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, said the impact to Xanterra business was devastating, as the company had to turn away thousands of visitors for over a week, and many chose to cancel their reservations for later in the summer.
“We’re in the tens of millions for loss of revenue from this impact,” Keller said. “We’re close to 20% down right now. It was probably closer to 30% to 35% two weeks ago, when we first started reopening limited services, but because we’ve gotten more and more online, we’re seeing that grow back into place.”
Secretary Of The Interior
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said she met with Park administration and state leaders Friday morning.
“I was very grateful yesterday to have had the opportunity to visit with (U.S.) Sen. (Jon) Tester (D-Montana), Sen. (Steve) Daines (R-Montana), and (Montana) Gov. (Greg) Giianforte, about the work that needs to be done here in Yellowstone,” Haaland said. “They are incredibly supportive.”
Sholly noted that park administrators had received similar support from Wyoming’s elected leaders during a visit earlier in the week.
“Gov. Gordon was in the park Wednesday, with Sen. Barrasso and Sen. Lummis,” Sholly said. “We had a great briefing on the ground. Gov. Gordon is also just like Gov. Gianforte, they’ve been extremely supportive of everything that we’re doing.”
Haaland pledged her department’s support for the reconstruction efforts.
“We’re going to give as much support as we possibly can to make sure that we meet the moment,” she said.
The Northern Gates
But now that 93% of the park has reopened for tourists, the remaining 7% of Yellowstone that is still cut off is the top priority for park officials, according to Sholly.
“We’ve got money freed up thanks to the secretary of the interior, and the secretary of transportation, up to $60 million,” Sholly said, “that we can put to use immediately to reconnect Gardiner and Cooke City, in those corridors, and we’re going to do just that before winter.”
Sholly said that there is extensive communication ongoing with the Montana communities that are still cut off from Yellowstone.
“We’ve opened our side of the Beartooth Highway for visitor access for Cooke City,” he said. “We’re allowing visitors to come into the park, although they can’t drive, but they can bike, they can hike, they can fish, both from Gardiner and from Cooke City. And we’ll continue to work through this.”
Sholly said construction is moving along quickly, thanks to federal dollars.
“Some of you’ve seen the road that we’re expanding between Gardiner and Mammoth,” he went on. “We plan to have that widened and paved sometime around October, or maybe sooner.”
But the important thing, Sholly said, is to make sure the work that is being done will last in the long term.
“Even though we talked about this being a one in 500-year event, there’s nothing that says we couldn’t get it again next year,” he said. “And so we want to make sure we’re doing it right for the long term, building to resiliency, and ensuring that the infrastructure investments that we make are smart, and that can withstand anything that comes downstream.”
Now that the majority of Yellowstone is open to visitors again, Keller pointed out that because of earlier cancellations, there’s plenty of room at the park’s lodging properties this summer.
“It’s a unique opportunity this year that we’re in peak season, you know, early July, and we actually have rooms available, and campsites available, in the Park,” Keller said. “So where most visitors would come this time of year and have nothing available in the park, even in the gateway communities, that’s not the case this year.”
Another silver lining, according to Keller, is that Xanterra’s restaurants and stores are no longer facing a staffing shortage.
“One of the benefits from the flooding event was, the employees we had located in the northern part of Yellowstone, at Mammoth and Roosevelt, because those locations didn’t reopen after the flood event, we relocated them into the southern part of the park,” Keller said. “So for the first time in a couple of years, we actually have full staff, at a time where we’re able to open all our services and provide all that back to visitors – like they were used to seeing pre-2019.”
“I’ve been absolutely inspired by the determination of the team here,” said Haaland. “The collaboration that everyone is displaying, knowing that no one’s going to do anything by themselves, we’re all going to work together… And certainly the passion that everyone has for this beautiful place.”
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