YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - We first told you in December that Montana US Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) says nearly $1 billion dollars is allocated in the current federal budget for infrastructure repairs at Yellowstone National Park.
Now, the park is setting priorities for how to best spend the money.
Some priorities were set by Mother Nature on June 13, 2022, when spring flooding wiped out roads between Mammoth and Gardiner and also near the northeast entrance.
Those roads need replacing and although emergency road work is largely completed, permanent solutions still need to be devised.
“This was a wake-up call in relationship to some of the critical infrastructure and deferred maintenance issues that we have in this park,” said Park Superintendent Cam Sholly during a recent MTN interview.
He is passionate about protecting and preserving the park for both visitors and employees. He told us, “Protecting this park is our top priority. You can’t host visitation without proper infrastructure in the park.”
Tester who sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee said he fought for the infrastructure.
“Yellowstone National Park is one of Montana’s natural treasures and one that small businesses and families in our gateway communities depend on," he told MTN News.
Tester said the top priority is replacing the washed-out roads. After that, park employee housing, and repair of damage to campgrounds and cabins inundated by flood waters.
Many business people we spoke with in Gardiner say the number one priority is repairing wastewater facilities so the Mammoth Hotel may reopen.
“The top priority after that would be having the permanent road into the park rebuilt,” said Gardiner Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Terese Petcoff.
Emil McCain, the owner of the wildlife tour company, Yellowstone Wild, said his priority is for restrooms and parking places in wildlife viewing areas.
He said what is needed is, “A pullout where we can get off the road safely, we can all get out of the vehicle and experience the park when we’re not in danger of a vehicle collision.”
Nathan Varley Ph.D. the owner of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker agreed, saying his priority list starts with, “some of your basic needs I think is what we can invest in to make travel a little bit easier and more convenient for all the visitors to the park.”
Yellowstone National Park Lodges General Manager, Mike Keller is willing to let the park officials decide on priorities.
“We want to support whatever the Park Service feels is best for transportation into and out of the park, infrastructure needs. You know, as this park is getting to evolve and grow and visitation has grown, we need to make sure we’re supporting them and what we need for the visitor to have a good time when they’re here.”
While emergency construction last summer built a new road connecting Mammoth and Gardiner, that road is a temporary solution.
Building a new, permanent road is at the top of a lot of lists but that will take time, perhaps years, to plan and complete.
Sholly said building the road will be a challenge.
“There’s no really good option. I mean, there’s no option that’s like, hey this is perfect. So, there’s going to be some trade-offs, and I feel confident this process we’re going to go through, and we’re going to expedite it as quickly as we can, will give us the best available alternative.”
He said he believes building upon the recently finished temporary road may be one of the best and most cost-effective options but adds most alternatives will be considered.
One option no longer on the table is following the exact path of the old road to the east side of the Gardiner River.
Sholly said that the route is threatened both by the river and rock sides from adjacent cliffs that are hundreds of feet tall.
At the same time, he downplayed the idea that the temporary road will not hold up for long.
“The notion that the road is going to collapse or something in five to ten years I think is a fallacy," he said. "I think there’s going to be likely to be more routine maintenance that needs to occur on that road because of how quickly it was built than maybe a normal road. And we’re going to see very quickly what the wear and tear look like on that road, but I don’t think, you know, it’s going to like, hey, in five years it’s going to slide out.”
He also emphasized the need to plan for future climatic events.
"Even though we’ve called this a one-in-500-year event, there will be a good likelihood something like this will happen much sooner. Maybe next year, maybe not in our lifetime. But it’s up to us to really figure out how we can predict and prevent the type of damage we saw in 2022 in Yellowstone.”
Sholly also said that repairing and upgrading wastewater treatment facilities, in both Canyon and Old Faithful is needed as well.
He says both systems were threatened by last June’s flooding and that both were very nearly lost.
Extended interview with Cam Sholly: