The flood-damaged northern loop of Yellowstone National Park could reopen within two weeks, a significantly accelerated estimate compared to expectations announced last week, park officials said over the weekend.
That’s on top of the expected June 22 reopening of the park’s southern loop, which means 80% of the nation’s oldest national park should be open within just weeks of devastating flooding in southern Montana and in time to recoup at least some of the losses of a truncated summer tourism season.
The new estimate is a far cry from the sobering assessment Park Superintendent Cam Sholly shared shortly after the flooding began: that the northern loop of the park, which allows visitors to access Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris and other destinations, would likely not reopen this season.
Instead, $50 million in emergency relief funds from the Federal Highway Administration and the redirection of road crews already in Yellowstone for an existing project have led the park to shift expectations, Sholly and National Park Service Director Chuck Sams III announced this weekend, according to a statement from the park.
The emergency funds, requested from FHWA by Montana’s federal delegation last week, will be used to jump-start improvements to the outdated, dirt-surfaced Old Gardiner Road, allowing temporary access between Gardiner and Mammoth. Flooding destroyed millions of dollars in public infrastructure, cutting off already isolated gateway communities from one another and leading the park to evacuate thousands of visitors.
Nestled in the scenic Yellowstone River valley along the Montana-Wyoming border, Gardiner, Montana — with its Old West facades, fly shops, and whitewater outfitters — serves as a year-round gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Its proximity to the northern entrance to the country’s oldest and arguably grandest national park fuels the town’s tourism-based economy. With a year-round population of fewer than 900 people, Gardiner is almost entirely reliant on the nearly three-quarters of a million visitors who pass through Yellowstone’s north gate each year. The summer season, the busiest and most lucrative time of year for most Gardiner businesses, was…
The Park Service is also working with the FHWA “on a range of temporary and permanent options” to restore access to Silver Gate and Cooke City at the park’s northeast entrance. No traffic is currently allowed into the Lamar Valley en route to those gateway communities.
“It’s about as fast as you can mobilize a plan for a new road,” Sholly told reporters, per the Billings Gazette.
Officials were initially careful not to overpromise, Park County Commissioner Bill Berg told Montana Free Press Tuesday.
“A lot of attention and a lot of resources and creativity are being brought to bear,” Berg said. “Any connectivity between Mammoth and Gardiner, even if limited, is more than we expected even a week ago.”
He noted, though, that emotional and economic anxiety still grip gateway communities like Gardiner, where innkeepers, guides and other proprietors saw their peak-season reservations dry up as the rivers rose.
“It’s gonna be a hard summer,” he said.
The federal transportation dollars are separate from Federal Emergency Management Agency resources already pledged to help three affected southern Montana counties: Carbon, Park and Stillwater. Last week’s federal declaration of major disaster in Montana allows the government and certain nonprofits in the state to tap into FEMA’s public assistance funds, designed to facilitate rapid repairs to public infrastructure.
Emergency managers are on the ground this week conducting preliminary damage assessments that will determine what public assistance funds are necessary and whether to open up access to FEMA individual assistance money, which the state has yet to request, an agency spokesperson said.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has also expressed openness to tapping into $93 million in available business assistance funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to aid flood-affected communities, a request that Montana Democratic legislative leadership made in a letter last week.
“We’re looking at that,” he told KULR’s Bradley Warren early Tuesday. “I think it’s a reasonable use of some of those funds.”
Gianforte also said on Twitter Tuesday that the state is gathering data in anticipation of adding Flathead County to the presidential disaster declaration. Even as the public’s attention has turned to Yellowstone and surrounding communities, the Flathead Valley has seen its share of historic flooding in the last two weeks.
Back in Park County, Berg said he’s cautiously hopeful that the weekend’s developments will provide some relief to the tourism-dependent residents and businesses in his communities this season — fitting, he said, given that summer began at 3:14 a.m. local time on June 21.
The weather Tuesday morning was sunny and fair, he said.
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