Created in 1872 as the United States was recovering from the Civil War, Yellowstone National Park was the first national park system to be called America’s best idea. Now, home to gushing geysers, thundering waterfalls, and some of the country’s most abundant and diverse wildlife is facing its biggest challenge in decades.
Floodwaters this week swept away numerous bridges, swept miles of roads, and closed the park as it approached peak tourist season during its 150th anniversary celebration. Nearby communities were submerged and hundreds of homes flooded as the Yellowstone River and its tributaries raged.
The extent of the damage is still being assessed by Yellowstone officials. Based on what park officials revealed and Associated Press images and videos taken from a helicopter, the greatest damage appeared to be to the roads, particularly on the highway connecting the park’s north entrance to Gardiner. , Montana, to the park offices in Mammoth Hot Springs. Large sections of the road were cut and swept away when a tributary of the Yellowstone River blew its banks. Perhaps hundreds of footbridges on the trails may have been damaged or destroyed.
Based on other national park disasters, rebuilding could take years and cost up to $ 1 billion in an environmentally sensitive landscape where the construction season only runs from spring thaw to the first snowfall.
“This is not going to be an easy reconstruction,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said earlier in the week as he highlighted photos of huge roadway gaps in the steep canyon. “I don’t think it’s going to be smart to potentially invest, you know, tens of millions of dollars, or a lot, in repairing a road that could be subject to a similar flood event in the future.”
Restoring a human footprint in a national park is always a delicate operation, especially as climate change makes natural disasters more likely. More and more intense fires are occurring, including one last year that destroyed bridges, cabins and other infrastructure in Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Floods have already caused extensive damage in other parks and pose a threat to nearly all of the more than 400 national parks, according to a Rocky Mountain Climate Organization report found 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, campgrounds and buildings was estimated at $ 36 million.
Yosemite Valley, in California’s Yosemite National Park, has been flooded multiple times, but suffered the worst damage 25 years ago when heavy downpours atop a large snowpack – a scenario similar to the Yellowstone flood – engulfed campsites. , flooded hotel rooms, bridges and washed out sections of road and cut off power and sewer lines. The park has been closed for more than two months.
Congress allocated $ 178 million in emergency funding – a huge sum for the park’s infrastructure at the time – and the additional funding ultimately exceeded $ 250 million, according to a 2013 report.
But the rebuilding effort once estimated to last four to five years spanned 15 years, partly due to environmental causes on a protected river corridor and a lengthy bureaucratic planning and overhaul process.
It’s unclear whether Yellowstone will face the same hurdles, though rebuilding the road that runs near Mammoth Hot Springs, where steaming water bubbles over an otherworldly series of stone terraces, poses 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 Hartl, director of affairs at government of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Along with the formation itself, there are also microbes and insects that thrive in the environment that is found almost nowhere else. And the park will need to avoid damaging any archaeological or cultural artifacts in the area with a rich Native American history.
“They will have to look at all of the assets the park is designed to protect and try to carry this out as carefully as possible, but they will also try to go quite quickly,” Hartl said.
Having to divert the carriageway that hugged the Gardner River could be an opportunity to better protect the waterway, fish and other species that thrive there from oil and other microscopic pollution 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 rethink its planning and not necessarily rebuild in the same places, said Frank Dean, president and chief executive officer of the Yosemite Conservancy and former park ranger.
Some structures have been relocated outside the floodplain and some campsites that had been submerged by the flood have never been restored. At Yosemite Lodge, the huts that had been removed in the 1980s were submerged and had to be removed.
“The flood took them all away like a precision shot,” Dean said. “I’m not going to say it’s a good thing, but providence stepped in and made the decision for them.”
Yellowstone’s recovery comes as rapidly growing numbers of people line up to visit the country’s national parks, even as a deferred maintenance budget backlog grows to tens of billions of dollars. The park was already supposed to be funded by the Great American Outdoors Act, a 2020 law passed by Congress that clears nearly $ 3 billion for maintenance and other projects on public land.
Now it will need another infusion of money for more urgent repairs that Emily Douce, the park’s director of operations and funding at the National Parks Conservation Association, has estimated could reach at least $ 1 billion.
The southern half of the park is expected to reopen next week, allowing visitors to reach Old Faithful, the rainbow-colored Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its majestic waterfall.
But the flood-damaged northern end may not reopen this year, preventing visitors from seeing Tower Fall and Lamar Valley, one of the best places in the world to see wolves and grizzly bears. On some days during peak season, an animal sighting can lead to thousands of people parked on the roadside hoping to catch a glimpse.
The reopening of some of these areas will depend on how quickly faded roads can be repaired, felled trees can be removed, and mudslides cleaned up.
Maintaining the approximately 466 miles of roadway throughout the park is an important job. Much of the carriageway was originally designed for stagecoaches, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of public affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Part of the effort over the past two decades has been to stabilize the road to make the heavier vehicles safe,” he said.
Located at a high altitude where snow and cold are not uncommon eight months of the year and there are many small earthquakes, road surfaces don’t last long and road operators have a short window to complete projects. Recently completed road work created closures for about two years.
“I think it will probably be several years before the park is totally back to normal,” Hartl said.