'Extensive' damage likely to keep parts of Yellowstone closed for months

Yellowstone National Park employee housing flooded in Yellowstone River on Monday. Severe flooding has the park closed indefinitely; northern parts of the park may be closed for several months, park officials said Tuesday.

Yellowstone National Park employee housing flooded in Yellowstone River on Monday. Severe flooding has the park closed indefinitely; northern parts of the park may be closed for several months, park officials said Tuesday. (Gina Riquier via National Park Service)


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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Bill Berg is quick to acknowledge that Yellowstone National Park's unbelievable scenery is the result of "violent" geographic and hydrologic events over the course of millions of years.

But after witnessing the power of severe flooding that ripped through the park Monday, resulting in an emergency closure that's still in place, Berg, the commissioner for Park County, Montana, finds it difficult to comprehend at the moment.

"It's just not handy when it happens while we're here settled on it," he said.

The nation's oldest national park remains closed indefinitely, though the extent of the flood damage is still unknown. It likely won't be known until at least next week, when experts from across the country will travel to the park to review the damage and calculate an early cost estimate, said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, during a press briefing on the flooding Tuesday afternoon.

That said, Sholly expects that the northern parts of the park will likely be closed to visitors for at least "the rest of the season," which he defines as early October.

"I'll stay as optimistic as possible but even if we got started right now, I'm not sure we could get the road on the northern end reopened," he said. "It's safe to say it's going to be an extended period of time that the northern end will be closed in relationship with the southern loop."

The northern portion of the park includes Mammoth Hot Springs, Roosevelt and Tower Fall. Access to gateway communities like Gardiner, Montana, is also likely to be impacted by the damage.

Park staff is waiting for water to recede before decisions are made on when the park's southern loop reopens. While some of the river waters have gone down, Sholly said there's still a possibility for more flooding this weekend based on forecasts and the 12 inches of water that remains in the region's snowpack.

Once the park does reopen, Yellowstone will likely implement an emergency timed entry system, reservation or some other program to ensure visitors aren't overusing open parts of the park, he added. That's because the park draws millions of visitors during the summer months.

The park's southern loop includes Old Faithful, Fishing Bridge, Grant Village, Madison and West Thumb. Once it does reopen, closures will be made at Norris and Canyon Village in the park to prevent visitors from entering the northern part of the park. Some roads will reopen for residents who live in the impacted communities.

Known and unknown damages

The unprecedented flooding is the result of a pair of forces that caused the Yellowstone River to surge. The park received about 2 to 3 inches of rain from an atmospheric river carrying water vapor through the sky that passed through the state over the weekend and into Monday. Warmer temperatures also melted about additional 5½ inches of snowmelt runoff that poured into the river, according to Sholly.

He said this resulted in a "considerable" number of rockslides, mudslides and other damage associated with high water levels.

The areas between Gardiner and Cook City, Montana, were particularly hit hard. Flooding destroyed sections of roads and even swept an employee housing unit 5 miles downriver. Sholly said there have been no flooding-related injuries, despite a widespread evacuation of the park; however, there was one person at the campground who died as a result of a heart attack on Monday.

Yellowstone National Park employee housing flooded in Yellowstone River on Monday. Park officials said the building was swept into the Yellowstone River Monday a few hours after the photo was taken and floated 5 miles down the river.
Yellowstone National Park employee housing flooded in Yellowstone River on Monday. Park officials said the building was swept into the Yellowstone River Monday a few hours after the photo was taken and floated 5 miles down the river. (Photo: National Park Service)

All visitors except about a dozen people in the Yellowstone backcountry have left the park, as of Tuesday afternoon. Those individuals are aware of the situation and are on their way out of the park, park officials said.

Berg also fears what all of this will mean for all the "gateway" communities by the park, like Gardiner, that rely heavily on tourism to sustain the local economy. Yellowstone isn't only the country's oldest national park, it was the third-most visited park last year with over 4.8 million visitors. It was still on pace for a busier year this year, based on visitation data updated through April.

Businesses in and around the park experienced slowdowns in recent years as a result of wildfires and COVID-19. They experienced record numbers last year too, which helped ease those burdens up until now.

"It lives and dies on tourism and this is going to be a pretty big hit," Berg said, explaining that all the people who made reservations are pulling out. "So businesses are already trying to sort out what they're going to do with their seasonal staff. If they can't afford to keep them, their business projections are shot."

The rebuilding process

A "large number of people" from different agencies across the country are set to evaluate the flooding damage next week, which will help get an understanding of the full damage to the park infrastructure, according to Sholly. The delay in the evaluation is to allow for water levels to subside.

It's possible that parts of the river have changed course permanently as a result of the flooding, which means some parts of the damaged roadway may never look the same, park officials say. It may force crews to find new pathways to enhance travel in the park.

"This is not going to be an easy rebuild," Sholly added. "Obviously, there's going to be things we need to do to stabilize — once the water comes down — to assess the damages."

It's not just the roads. There are "hundreds (and) hundreds" of bridges that will need to be evaluated for damage — and that's on top of the park employee housing unit that was completely destroyed.

The U.S. Department of Interior, as well as Montana and Wyoming leaders, have already been in contact with park officials, offering support. Since it's unclear what the damage is at the moment, it's unknown how much it will cost to repair it. But based on the images that have emerged from the park, it won't be cheap.

"You can see by the pictures that it's extensive but we will not know exactly what the timelines are, what the costs are or any of that until we've got teams on the ground that can actually assess what happened and what it's going to take to repair it," Sholly said. "We know how important this is to everyone. We're doing our best job to stabilize the situation until we get the water down."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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