This wasn’t the 150th anniversary Yellowstone National Park had planned, but it will certainly go down in history.
The unprecedented June flooding that temporarily shut down the whole park, and kept two entrances gated the entire summer season, made the anniversary unlike any other year in terms of high-profile damage to roads and the speedy and expensive repairs to get new routes opened.
Politicians and agency officials gathered at the North Entrance on Oct. 29 to dedicate the rebuilt Old Gardiner Road into Yellowstone, an 1800s stagecoach route that was heavily reconstructed and paved to once again provide public access.
The road is the only one open into Yellowstone in the winter, providing access to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and farther on to the Lamar Valley and the towns of Cooke City and Silver Gate. It’s also the second-busiest entrance to the park, carrying about 2,000 to 3,000 visitors each day during the peak of summer.
“The floods of June 13th really had a major impact on so many people,” park superintendent Cam Sholly said in addressing the gathering of about 70 people at Mammoth Hot Springs on the cool, sunny day with the snow-capped Absaroka Mountains in the background. “Not only here in Yellowstone but our gateway communities and communities around the states.
“And the one thing these last several months have shown is that when we come together, and we put our mind to things, we can get a lot done, even under the most difficult circumstances.”
Also damaged in the flood were campgrounds, buildings, trails and bridges. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration made $60 million available in emergency funding for road repairs, with each roadway’s upgrades estimated to cost around $25 million each. Sholly said the speed in which the emergency funding was awarded was one of the main reasons everyone could gather to celebrate. Typically, such roadwork would take two to three years.
Rafael Castanon, senior project engineer for the Federal Highway Administration, called the building of the new North Entrance road “context-sensitive design and construction kind of on the fly … It’s really quite an accomplishment, I’m very proud of it.”
“This was a once in a lifetime opportunity project,” said Jacob Sphatt, a consulting project engineer with Rock Sol Consulting Group, based in Thornton, Colorado. “Usually you’re following a rigid set of plans. To go out to a one-lane road and be instructed to build it to two lanes and with limited design resources just because you can’t keep up with construction” was challenging.
To transition from a dirt road 16-feet wide to the new paved route in less than five months was nothing short of a miracle, the workers agreed.
“There are not a lot of folks that have said they’ve seen a four-mile, two-lane mountainous road get constructed in such a short amount of time,” Sholly added. “These are the folks who made it happen.”
The old road along the Gardner River at the North Entrance, which connected the communities of Gardiner and Mammoth, was washed out in several places by record high water on June 13, severing an economic lifeline for Gardiner’s tourism-oriented businesses.
At the park’s Northeast Entrance, Cooke City and Silver Gate businesses also took a hit when sections of the road in that area were washed out and the park gate was closed. The route reopened to the public on Oct. 15, but by then many of the towns’ businesses were already boarded up until the winter season.
Some residents and business folk in Gardiner are angry the Park Service didn’t do more to allow additional visitors into Yellowstone via the Old Gardiner Road as it was undergoing upgrades. Others praised the park for moving as fast as possible so it didn’t extend into another summer.
“Superintendent Sholly and his team have been nothing short of miracle workers,” said Park County Commissioner Bill Berg. “It’s pretty amazing what they’ve done. They’ve moved heaven and earth.”
It’s understandable that people are frustrated and upset over the situation, Berg added. The communities were dealt a harsh blow in what was expected to be another record season for visitation to Yellowstone during its 150th anniversary.
“It certainly called attention to some of our vulnerabilities,” he added.
That included visitors and residents being trapped in Gardiner after the Yellowstone River overran Highway 89 in Yankee Jim Canyon and washed out a bridge at Tom Miner Basin. A bridge on Highway 89 farther downstream near Point of Rocks was also damaged. One riverside multiplex that housed park employees was washed away and other homes may be condemned now that the riverbank is so close to their property. In case of similar problems in the future, the county is looking at reopening the old rail bed through Yankee Jim, on the opposite side of the Yellowstone River, as a possible secondary route.
Praise regarding the cooperation of all of the agencies, employees and officials involved was profuse at the scenic podium as speakers stepped up to the microphone.
Tim Hess, of the Federal Highway Administration, said it was a multi-agency effort with many people working 12- to 14-hour days to arrange the emergency funding. Luke Reiner, staff director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation stressed the many partnerships necessary to complete the work. “We stand in awe of too many to name,” he said.
Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale said the road repairs signified hope to gateway communities. “Because even though they had gone through, and are still going through, these difficult times, what they saw was the rest of the community pulling together to try to get them some kind of support again.”
Sholly even singled out his wife for praise, as well as the spouses of other park workers, for putting up with the long hours and stress the flood caused.
“You want to talk about somebody who has absorbed a lot of stress over the summer,” he said, adding it was one of the most trying times in many of his colleagues’ careers.
He singled out Jayne, a park concession manager who stepped into the role of traffic control during the summer. Jayne, who wouldn’t give her last name because she’s been a victim of identity theft, said she’s glad that, “three weeks solid of 80 hours ends today.” During that time, she tried to “bring a little joy” into the lives of drivers who had to wait in line to cross the road at specified times as construction continued.
Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said he had visited Yellowstone only days before the flood to see how money from the Great American Outdoors Act was being invested in the park’s infrastructure, from roads and bridges to wastewater systems. At the time, he realized there was still a lot of backlogged work remaining, and then the flood hit.
Beaudreau said he had been through other natural disasters and although tragic, they have the ability to remind people how connected they are to each other.
“There’s a lot more that unites us, there’s a lot more common ground, there’s a lot more interdependency and there’s a lot more partnership than sometimes we give ourselves credit for,” he said. “So part of what this road symbolizes … is everything that binds us together.”
Perhaps most important to the communities economically stressed by the closed entrances is for visitors to return. Gov. Greg Gianforte stressed that issue in his comments, saying, “I want all of America to know that Yellowstone is open, and we want you to come back and visit.
“We’d love to see you,” he added.
Elk bugle, and 650 soil nails
As if to emphasize the beauty of Yellowstone, a bull elk bugled near the North Entrance as a small herd of pronghorns walked past on the drive to Mammoth on the new road. The golden foothills shimmered in the morning sun with the snowy mountains as a beautiful backdrop. Even veteran park workers commented on the views. Whereas the old road went through a narrow canyon on the way to Mammoth, the new route climbs high.
“This is the best decision we made,” Sholly said, pointing to a newly constructed slope that drops into Mammoth, noting the scenic overview of the park headquarters and historic Fort Yellowstone.
“It was an incredible feat to get this done in such a short amount of time,” he said.
Dan Rhodes, the park’s project manager for the Old Gardiner Road, noted this one section required the installation of 650 soil nails 10 to 40 feet long that were anchored into the hillside to keep it from sloughing off.
“This is a great day, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Sholly noted in conclusion.
Beaudreau said Congress is already talking about new funding and Sholly said the park will begin looking at how to improve the road, by straightening some of the many curves or lessening the steeper inclines, next week.
“Now that we have these communities reconnected, we need to make sure that we think about the future and make sure we don’t have another event like this cause a summer like we just had.”
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