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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Yellowstone road repairs to begin soon at both ends

The North Entrance road of Yellowstone National Park between Gardiner and Mammoth is destroyed following flooding in Yellowstone National Park.  (NPS / Doug Kraus)
The North Entrance road of Yellowstone National Park between Gardiner and Mammoth is destroyed following flooding in Yellowstone National Park. (NPS / Doug Kraus)
By Brett French The Billings Gazette

A Montana-grown construction business could begin repairing the flood-damaged road through Yellowstone National Park that connects the North and Northeast entrances next week.

Oftedal Construction has bid to make temporary repairs to the damaged roadway. The employee-owned company has offices in Miles City and Casper, Wyoming.

The goal is to have the route entirely reopened to public traffic by October.

The highway is vital to the residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate, at the Northeast Entrance, since it provides the only road to the mountain towns in the winter. It is also the only road open to automobiles in Yellowstone in the winter, so it’s popular with wildlife watchers.

Heavy runoff from a rain-on-snowpack event in mid-June damaged the roadway, gouging out large sections that prompted officials to temporarily close the entire park while an assessment was undertaken. More than 90% of the park has reopened to visitors, although the North and Northeast entrances remain closed along with a large section of backcountry between the two park gates.

Long-term

Permanent repairs of the roadway may take three to five years, with options being drawn up by the Park Service for public review.

The other temporary road repair is to the Old Gardiner Road at the North Entrance, being undertaken by HK Contractors of Idaho Falls. The route is currently being used by park employees and commercial contractors at defined times to avoid construction work delays. The old gravel road is being widened to two lanes and paved to connect Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, which is where Yellowstone National Park’s headquarters are located.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park superintendent, is hoping the work on both sections of roadway can be completed by the fall, allowing public traffic to resume. Single lane traffic, controlled by a stoplight, may be necessary on parts of the route through the Lamar Valley, he recently told area residents and business owners.

If the road repairs can’t be completed by this fall, the Park Service in concert with the Montana and Wyoming departments of transportation, will make plans to “plow the plug.” The plug is a section of Highway 212 that is closed to auto traffic in the winter, creating a popular snowmobiling trail. Some snowmobile-dependent businesses in Cooke City are worried that if the plug is plowed, snowmobilers may not visit, since it will hamper snowmobile access to the surrounding mountains.

Even if the temporary roadway through Yellowstone is finished in time for winter travel, vehicle length restrictions may be necessary on the narrow, winding Old Gardiner Road. Also questionable is whether the Mammoth Hotel would be reopened for the winter season, since it is reliant on the park’s septic service, which was severed in the flooding.

For now, the Park Service is using old settling ponds as a temporary solution while it works to reconnect its service lines, which travel to the Gardiner wastewater treatment plant. The ponds cannot be used once the weather turns cold since the water will freeze.

Northeast

Unlike the upgrading taking place at the Old Gardiner Road, the repairs near the Northeast Entrance involve several sections of roadway. In some places, a new route will be built away from the old highway, damaged by high waters in Soda Butte Creek, Pebble Creek and the Lamar River. One repair involves the installation of a temporary bridge to span a 750-foot gouge.

Oftedal will be working from both ends of the damaged roadway to speed the construction. As work is completed, Sholly said the Park Service may be able to incrementally reopen the roadway to the public, expanding access to Yellowstone as construction crews make progress.

Right now, public access to the park at the North and Northeast entrances is allowed only for cyclists or walkers to travel a short distance. Some tour operators and outfitters are being allowed access over the Old Gardiner Road, but at controlled times to limit disruption of the ongoing construction work.

The Park Service on Wednesday announced the opening of the road from Tower Junction to Slough Creek, a six-mile stretch, to bikers, hikers and anglers. Visitors will be able to park at Tower Junction.

The park is finalizing a day-use reservation system for visitor vehicle access which will be online by Aug. 1, allowing reservation holders day-use access with their vehicles. Permits would be available at recreation.gov.

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