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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
As Yellowstone National Park kicked off its 150th anniversary tourist season in May, hopes were high that the celebration would draw even more visitors than the nearly 4.9 million seen in 2021, the busiest on record and rising 20% compared to 2020.
But less than six weeks after the park opened for the summer season, a late spring rainstorm caused millions of gallons of water to scoop up hillsides, consume roads and rip out bridges – and houses – on the Yellowstone River.
On Oct. 13, exactly four months after the historic flood — and a week before his fourth anniversary as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park — Cam Sholly led members of the media on a tour of the construction area leading up to Yellowstone from the northeast entrance. .
“The last few years seemed to be the true definition of dog years,” Sholly said.
The visit takes a hit
Less than two years after taking over as park superintendent, Sholly has overseen the changes needed to operate the nation’s first national park during a pandemic.
Then, on June 13 this year, thousands of visitors had their vacations in Yellowstone abruptly cut short as Yellowstone National Park officials evacuated the entire park despite flooding only damaging roads at the north end. of Yellowstone. Concerns about water quality prompted close inspections of all developed areas in the park, which shut down all of Yellowstone for eight days.
The South Loop opened first, as it was determined that facilities in the northern part of the park had suffered more damage to critical wastewater treatment infrastructure. This meant that visitors – those who had not yet canceled their plans – had to limit their explorations to areas south of Canyon and Norris.
In a normal year, this concentration of visits to two-thirds of the developed areas of Yellowstone would have been difficult. But because news of the flooding spread so quickly, staff and infrastructure were not strained.
“Our car counts show that with the exception of a few days, south, west and east entries for most of the summer were below normal entries,” Sholly said. “And so even having to close those two entrances, it wasn’t like it pushed everyone to those three – visits were just lower, so that helped.”
Significantly lower, it turns out.
“I guess we’ll be around 3.2 (million) this year, in that range, which is significantly lower,” Sholly said.
One of the reasons for visitor cancellations, Sholly speculated, is that first-time visitors didn’t want to miss the wonders of the Lamar Valley, where wildlife viewing is some of the best in the park.
“Seventy percent of visitors who come to Yellowstone are first-time visitors, and a big chunk of that bucket list goes to Lamar Valley,” he said. “And if you’re planning on planning your one-time trip to Yellowstone, but can’t make it to Lamar Valley, you might want to wait until you can.”
The ever-increasing number of visitors to Yellowstone has raised questions in recent years as to whether the park would ever be required to implement visitor management systems, like the reservation systems that have been used recently in Utah. Sholly said one of the benefits of disaster response efforts is the ability to try out various visitor management systems.
“We were able to try some things, like the alternate license plate system,” he said. “We have set up a booking system for Tower to Slough Creek, a day booking system. So we were able to experiment with some visitor usage management measures that we probably wouldn’t have been able to take except in emergency circumstances. »
He said the alternate license plate system worked almost too well.
“We got a lot of visitor data that really liked it. There was less congestion, parking availability,” Sholly said. “But we had a lot of conversations with Cody and Jackson and West Yellowstone about (if yes or no) we were putting enough cars in the park.”
‘A wake up call’
Sholly said that although experts called the flooding a “once in 500 year event”, that doesn’t mean much.
“We could have another similar event next year, 10 years from now, or whatever,” he said. “And in some ways, I think that should be a wake-up call.”
He said most of the park’s road infrastructure was built in the 1930s and 1940s, when climate change was not part of the conversation.
“It’s a reminder that not only do we need to maintain and improve the infrastructure we have, but we really need to look to the future when making those improvements,” he said, noting that the roads across Yellowstone are essential for multiple reasons. “How can we make (these improvements) in the most resilient way to future events that may occur?”
The Mammoth Hotel is still not operational
Although Mammoth’s Hot Springs Hotel is still not operational, Sholly said staff hope to open this winter. The delay, he said, is that a temporary sewage treatment plant is being built but has not been operational over the summer.
“We didn’t have enough wastewater capacity to accommodate guests, employees, hotels and restaurants,” Sholly said.
However, thanks to a few percolating basins dating from the 1960s on the property, the administrative buildings can be safely occupied.
“It works well when the temperature is above freezing,” Sholly said. “It doesn’t work well when it’s below, unless you want to go out and break the ice every morning.”
Hope for winter economy
As construction wraps up at both the northeast and northern entrances (Old Gardiner Road is expected to open no later than Nov. 1), Sholly said residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate will not be not cut off from the rest of civilization, as the only other way out of this area in the summer – east to Red Lodge and Cody – is cut off by snow during the winter.
But that snow also provides a vibrant winter economy for communities, where businesses service snowmobilers.
“It’s the only road between Cooke City and Gardiner, the only road open to wheeled traffic in the winter,” Sholly said. “And so wildlife viewing, wolf watching, and snowmobilers going to Cooke City and that sort of thing are critical parts of those winter economies when tourism is at its lowest.”
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