Yellowstone flood reconstruction could take years and cost billions

Established in 1872 as the United States was recovering from the Civil War, Yellowstone was the first national park to be called America’s Best Idea. Today, home to gushing geysers, thundering waterfalls and some of the country’s most abundant and diverse wildlife faces its biggest challenge in decades.

This week’s floodwaters wiped out many bridges, washed away miles of roads and closed the park ahead of peak tourist season during its 150th anniversary celebration. Nearby communities were inundated 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, but based on other national park disasters, rebuilding could take years and cost more than $1 billion in an ecologically sensitive landscape where the season of construction extends only from the spring thaw until the first. snowfall.

From what park officials revealed and Associated Press images and video taken from a helicopter, the most extensive damage appears to be to the roads, particularly on the highway connecting the north entrance from the park in Gardiner, Montana to the park offices in Mammoth Hot Springs. Large sections of the road were undermined and washed away when the Gardner River jumped from its banks. Maybe hundreds of footbridges on the trails were damaged or destroyed.

“It’s not going to be an easy rebuild,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said earlier this week, highlighting photos of huge pavement gaps in the steep canyon. “I don’t think it’s wise to invest potentially, you know, tens of millions of dollars, or whatever, in repairing a road that may be subject to similar flooding in the future. .”

Recreating a human footprint in a national park is always a delicate operation, especially since climate change makes natural disasters more likely. Increasingly intense wildfires are occurring, including one last year that destroyed bridges, cabins and other infrastructure in Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.

Flooding has already caused extensive damage in other parks and poses a threat to virtually all of the more than 400 national parks, according to a 2009 report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state closed for six months after the worst flooding in its history in 2006. Damage to roads, trails, campgrounds and buildings was estimated at 36 million of dollars.

Yosemite Valley in California’s Yosemite National Park has been flooded several times, but suffered its worst damage 25 years ago when heavy downpours over a heavy snowpack – a scenario similar to the flooding of Yellowstone – submerged campgrounds, flooded hotel rooms, washed away bridges and sections of road, and destroyed power and sewer lines. The park was closed for more than two months.

Congress appropriated $178 million in emergency funds — a huge sum for park infrastructure at the time — and additional funding eventually topped $250 million, according to a 2013 report.

But the rebuilding effort, once estimated at four to five years, took 15 years, in part because of environmental lawsuits over a protected river corridor and a lengthy bureaucratic planning and review process.

It’s unclear whether Yellowstone would face the same obstacles, though the reconstruction of the road that passes near Mammoth Hot Springs, where steaming water bubbles over a series of otherworldly stone terraces, presents a challenge.

It’s created by a unique natural formation of underground tubes and vents that push warm water to the surface, and is believed to be just one of many natural wonders that crews should be careful not to disturb, Brett Hartl said. , director of government affairs at the Center. for biological diversity.

Besides the formation itself, there are also microbes and insects that thrive in the environment that are found almost nowhere else. And the park should avoid damaging archaeological or cultural artifacts in the area with a rich Native American history.

“They’ll have to look at all of the resources that the park is designed to protect and try to do this project as carefully as possible, but they’ll also try to move pretty quickly,” Hartl said.

Having to reroute the road that runs alongside 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 from passing vehicles, Hartl said. .

“The river will be healthier because of it,” 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 CEO of the Yosemite Conservancy and former park ranger.

Some facilities were moved outside the floodplain, and some campgrounds that had been submerged by the flood were never restored. At Yosemite Lodge, cabins that were to be removed in the 1980s were submerged 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 providence stepped in and made the decision for them.”

Yellowstone’s recovery comes as growing numbers of people line up to visit the nation’s national parks, even as the deferred maintenance budget backlog reaches tens of billions of dollars. The park was already slated to be funded through the Great American Outdoors Act, a 2020 law passed by Congress that authorizes nearly $3 billion for maintenance and other projects on public lands.

Now it will need another cash injection for more urgent repairs which Emily Douce, director of parks operations and funding at the National Parks Conservation Association, could total at least $1 billion, according to Emily Douce.

The southern half of the park is set to reopen next week, allowing visitors to flock to Old Faithful, the rainbow-hued Grand Prismatic Spring and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and its majestic waterfall.

But the flood-damaged north end 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. On certain days during peak season, an animal sighting can lead to thousands of people pulling up to the side of the road in hopes of a glimpse.

The reopening of some of these areas will depend on how quickly washed out roads can be repaired, downed trees can be removed and landslides cleared.

Maintaining the approximately 466 miles (750 kilometers) of causeway through the park is a major job. Much of the causeway 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 it safe for the heavier vehicles traveling on it,” she said.

Located at a high elevation where snow and cold are not uncommon eight months of the year and there are many small earthquakes, road surfaces don’t last as long and road crews have a short window to complete the projects. Recently completed road work resulted in closures for about two years.

“I think it will probably be several years before the park is totally back to normal,” Hartl said.

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