Tough choices ahead as Yellowstone rebounds from record flooding

When Yellowstone National Park experienced one of the driest years in its history last year, Superintendent Cam Sholly compared conditions to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.

Last month, after four days of rain and melting snow that produced devastating floods and mudslides, he called it “a millennial event, whatever that means these days”.

Perhaps no park superintendent in the country has had a keener look at the extremes of Mother Nature in the past year than Sholly, who took over as Yellowstone’s helmsman in 2018.

Since the June floods forced an evacuation and temporary closure, Sholly said in a recent interview that the park has moved “at lightning speed” to reopen. As of last week, officials said 93% of Yellowstone’s paved roads are once again accessible to the public, along with 94% of the park’s backcountry.

In the latest sign of progress, the 68-mile Beartooth Highway – once dubbed America’s Most Beautiful Road by the late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt – reopened Friday afternoon, giving visitors easy access to the entrance northeast of the park.

While Sholly is pleased with the initial results, he and his National Park Service superiors still face the tough choices ahead of them about how best to rebuild Yellowstone in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

Regardless of how they proceed, park advocates said Yellowstone’s experience this summer makes one thing clear: Congress will have to provide billions more to help an already-stripped park service fortify its infrastructure. – including aging buildings, roads and other structures – to ensure the parks can survive the ravages of extreme weather.

This promises to be a huge boost for an agency that already faces a nearly $22 billion backlog in deferred maintenance, including $929 million in Yellowstone, the most for any park (green wireJune 17).

“Obviously it’s a ton of money and they can’t do it all at once,” said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity. “But it’s a big, tough problem that a lot of our public lands are facing.”

In Yellowstone, no decision about the park’s future will be tougher than rebuilding a popular flood-damaged road that crosses the Gardner River Canyon, connecting Roosevelt Arch and the park’s north entrance in Gardiner, Montana, with the park headquarters in Mammoth. Hot springs in Wyoming.

In a raw display of the power of nature, the intensity of the flooding actually changed the course of the river.

“Where the road was, in many areas the river is now,” Sholly explained.

While the park is still considering its options, Sholly said he’s already wondering if it would make sense to rebuild in Gardner Canyon.

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea, not that we couldn’t build a structure that could withstand a flood, but it’s also a corridor prone to rockfalls and landslides and things like that,” he said. “We’ll be looking at that as an option, but we’re also looking at the other options that would get the road out of the canyon.”

“Yellowstone may not be alone”

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly, left, speaking with Montana Governor Greg Gianforte (right), July 7, about ongoing work on Old Gardiner Road at the park’s north entrance. | Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service/Flickr

As Yellowstone officials prepare various cost estimates for the flood damage, everyone is expecting a steep price tag.

“The total could end up running into the hundreds of millions, which would rival or even exceed natural disasters in national parks over the past two decades,” said John Garder, senior budget and appropriations director at the National. Parks Conservation Association. .

Garder, who traveled to Yellowstone last week to assess the damage, said other parks across the country will have to prepare for similar difficulties.

“Unfortunately, Yellowstone may not be alone in facing these kinds of challenges as we see more impacts from climate change,” he said.

Garder also predicted that Yellowstone and National Park Service officials will face a delicate balancing act as they rebuild: “It’s going to be really difficult for the park service to figure out how to do this in a way that minimizes the impact on a very pristine environment and maximizes resilience to future climate change-related disasters.

Hartl, a former Glacier National Park ranger in Montana, said many park buildings across the country were built near rivers and streams and in flood-prone areas, at a time when park officials park did not have to worry about changing weather conditions.

“A lot of these buildings were built at the time. … There are facilities all over these parks that are going to get more and more expensive to maintain,” he said. “We have to find the best way to adapt.”

In a report released last year, the NPS acknowledged that it will be impossible to save all of the park’s assets due to the irreversible changes already caused by a changing climate. The report urged park officials to “resist, accept and direct” the effects of climate change, depending on the park’s individual circumstances (green wireNovember 5, 2021).

In the Greater Yellowstone region, the outlook is particularly bleak, according to a climate assessment released last year by scientists from the University of Wyoming, Montana State University and the US Geological Survey (green wireJune 23, 2021).

The report found that average temperatures have risen 2.3 degrees since 1950 and could rise another 10 degrees or more by 2100. Without reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the report warns, cities in Wyoming of Jackson, Cody, and Pinedale, as well as Bozeman, Mont., could experience an additional 40 to 60 days each year with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees by the turn of the century.

Cathy Whitlock, a paleoclimatatologist at Montana State in Bozeman who served as the report’s co-lead author, said the conditions that caused the June flood — a large rain event combined with rapid snowmelt wet – expected to continue in the area. .

“You have the prospect of these spring floods happening earlier in the year as the climate gets warmer, and then you have increased drought in late summer – and with increased drought you get more forest fires,” she said. “So you’re too wet on one side and you’re too dry with lots of wildfires on the other side.”

Sholly said fire hazards were already a concern.

“We had more snowfall in April and May than in January, February and March combined, but it’s going to dry out. … And I’m sure we’re going to see fires sooner rather than later in the park,” he said.

“We don’t pay attention to overtime”

Deb Haaland in Yellowstone
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland takes photos July 7 of road damage in Yellowstone National Park near Rescue Creek. | Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service/Flickr

In Washington, Biden administration officials are already using Yellowstone as a kind of poster to draw public attention to the growing threats of climate change.

When Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Yellowstone earlier this month, she touted the need for quick action, saying the floods “show exactly what’s at risk if we don’t tackle the climate change”.

“In the face of more severe storms, the beloved places that are home to our natural heritage and our communities are at risk,” she said on Twitter.

As part of his visit, Haaland joined Sholly for a tour of the city’s gateway to Gardiner, where spending by park visitors fuels the economy.

Businesses in the small town, where many park employees also live, have been a major concern for Sholly.

“They are hurting, absolutely,” he said.

With the main road through the Gardner River Canyon closed, park officials plan to use part of a $60 million emergency appropriation to pave an old stagecoach road to provide a new connection to Gardiner.

Sholly said he hoped the stagecoach route would open by winter, but added that long-term repairs could take three to five years.

“We want to do it right,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is just fix the road in the canyon, for example, and then have another major failure in a year. … We’re going to take the time we need.

So far, Sholly said, attendance figures show far fewer visitors have been to the park than in normal July, with overall traffic down about 40% at the start of the month from pre-levels. -pandemics of 2019.

But he said it may take some time for visits to fully rebound, recalling that it took several weeks to return to normal traffic volumes when the park last closed in 2020 due to the pandemic. .

The flooding interrupted some of Yellowstone’s plans to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Sholly said officials hoped to find a replacement location for a tipi village in August, which had been planned near Roosevelt’s Arch to honor tribes that have historical ties to Yellowstone.

Sholly, who received high marks from her bosses in Washington for getting the park up and running so quickly, said Yellowstone workers logged thousands of overtime hours responding to the disaster, but that was the least of his worries.

“We don’t pay attention to overtime when it comes to saving lives and reopening the park,” he said.

Park officials said they’ve also received many inquiries from people wanting to know how Yellowstone’s famous wildlife fared this summer, but Sholly said the animals were “largely unaffected.” .

“I flew over the damage several times,” he said. “I can tell you the grizzlies are running around and the bison are having fun.”

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