By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Ninety-three percent of Yellowstone National Park is open to the public once again after devastating floods forced the closure of America’s first national park on June 13.
But opening the section that is still inaccessible is a priority for Park Superintendent Cam Sholly.
“That 7% that’s not open is in very, very critical corridors,” Sholly told the media during a press conference Friday. “We’re working with federal highways, with many partners.
“We’ve gotten money freed up thanks to the Secretary (of the Interior) and the Secretary of Transportation, up to $60 million that we can put to use immediately to reconnect Gardiner and Cooke City (Montana) in those corridors – and we’re going to do just that before winter,” he added.
Sholly explained that accessibility from both of the park’s northern entrances – the north gate at Gardiner and the northeast gate at Cooke City – is a high priority.
“While it might not be normal, we’re making the park as accessible as possible on those northern ends,” he said.
Sholly said crews are working to expand a gravel road that connects Gardiner with Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone’s administrative headquarters.
The road being followed is a former stagecoach trail that has only been used sparingly in the last half-century.
“We plan to have that two-laned and paved sometime around October, or maybe sooner,” Sholly said. “We’re working with those commercial operators to expand that program.”
The Mammoth Hot Springs developed area, while not yet ready for overnight guests at its hotel, is once again open for business, according to Mike Keller with Xanterra Parks and Resorts.
“Mammoth Gift Shop reopened (Friday),” he told Cowboy State Daily. “The gas station is open.The Delaware North Star is going to open here in the next few days. So we’re going to have limited services in Mammoth.”
Keller said he is relieved that the community can offer sufficient services to allow residents to remain.
“We have been able to get to the point where the residents that live up there can stay there,” he said. “There was concern at one point that everyone would have to leave Mammoth while they fix this, that’s been taken care of.”
And Sholly said that similar hurdles have been overcome at the northeast gate. He said that park staff have been in close communication with those communities, which was confirmed by Chris Warren, manager of the Range Rider Lodge in Silver Gate, in late June.
“I did just find out a few minutes ago, that you are going to be able to walk into the park and fish in the park and things like that,” Warren said on June 29. “But there will be no traffic access. So anybody wanting to access the Beartooths, the lakes, the rivers, the streams, that’s all open and available.”
“We’ve opened our side of the Beartooth Highway for visitor access for Cooke City,” Sholly said on Friday. “We’re allowing visitors to come into the park, and although they can’t drive, they can bike, they can hike, they can fish, both from Gardiner and from Cooke City.”
$60 Million To Start With
Sholly said that the Federal Highway Emergency Fund freed up $60 million for the initial repairs along Highway 89, connecting Gardiner with Cooke City. But much more than that will be needed to completely refurbish the infrastructure that was damaged or washed away on June 13.
“If you look at the total amount of actual pavement that’s missing, it’s less than a couple of miles,” Sholly said. “But it’s in some of the most critical and hard to rebuild areas of the park.”
Major rebuilding projects include the replacement of several bridges that were damaged or destroyed. Two bridges in the Gardiner to Mammoth corridor are still standing but are severely damaged, and three or four others were swept away.
“What we’ve done over the last couple of weeks is start to put together comprehensive damage assessments and cost estimates that are being refined,” Sholly said. “We’re getting close to those being finished, when they’re done, they’ll be moved up to the Secretary’s level for review.”
Re-Drawing The Map
But by the time repairs are finished, Yellowstone’s road map might look significantly different than it did prior to June 13.
“Only in the last two weeks have we been able to get down and start really doing the damage assessments,” said Sholly, who said that the total cost will vary depending on the solutions presented.
“Looking at what other road alignments we might look at, especially from Gardiner to Mammoth, each one of those could have a different price tag,” he said. “And so there’ll be a range of what it costs, based on what is the least environmentally impacting, what is the most expeditious, what is the best cost investment, and a variety of other criteria that we look at as we put those numbers together.”
But from a long-term recovery standpoint, Sholly said the park wants to make sure the new construction projects will last for years to come.
“We want to do it right,” Sholly said. “It may not be just about fixing the sections of road that washed out during the flood event. It’s also looking with an eye toward the future, if other areas and those corridors might be vulnerable to a similar flood event.”
Although the flood that occurred a month ago has been dubbed a “1-in-500-year-event,” Sholly pointed out that natural disasters of all kinds could occur at any time.
“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.”
And Keller explained that it will be a while yet before the Mammoth Hot Springs area will be able to handle guests, largely due to the damage sustained to the wastewater septic system.
“The system is not ready yet for a commercial kitchen to come online,” he said. “That’ll be the park service’s determination to provide us when they feel that system is stable enough to handle that.”