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Yellowstone Park's season better than anticipated after June flooding

CODY – Its 150th anniversary — once expected to bring record visitation to Yellowstone National Park —- ended with lower-than-normal attendance, but Superintendent Cam Sholly is still smiling.

In a summer during which the park had to be evacuated and repaired due to flooding, Sholly said it bounced back better than he could have anticipated.

”My hats off to all our surrounding communities including Cody for engaging in a massive amount of dialogue about the best course of action when the flooding happened,” Sholly said. “We opened 50 percent of the park within eight days of the flood, and 93 percent within 20 days of the flood. That doesn’t just happen without great partners.”

Beginning June 12, unprecedented amounts of rainfall caused substantial flooding, rockslides and mudslides within Yellowstone. Historic water levels caused severe damage to roads, water and wastewater systems, power lines and other critical infrastructure.

Less than three weeks after the flooding, both the north and south loops of the park had reopened to visitation — an accomplishment Sholly attributes to flexibility and creativity from all involved.

“We started with our alternating license plate system, and as more and more of the park opened, we did away with that,” Sholly said. “We implemented a reservation system at Slough Creek (Campground) and did away with that when we didn’t need it anymore. As I look back, I feel like we came up with the right solutions at the right points of time, and when we didn’t need those anymore, we dropped them.”

Most recently, the park accomplished another major milestone, opening the North Entrance out of Gardiner in late October, he said.

The road to the north gate was significantly damaged in the flooding, and successful repairs were not guaranteed this year, he said.

“Getting the Old Gardiner Road open in four months was unprecedented,” Sholly said. “We couldn’t have done it without the help of the Federal Highway Administration, which provided $60 million in funding and helped us get some great contractors. It’s good to have Gardiner reconnected, and the North Entrance reopened.”

As expected, the flooding did put a damper on attendance, Sholly said, and the park expects to end 2022 with around 3.2 million visits.

The last “normal” pre-COVID year was 2019, Sholly said, which brought about 4 million visits.

The pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 saw higher than average visitation, with roughly 4.7 million visits setting records in 2021, according to previous Enterprise data.

“There was a lot of reporting and attention given to the flooding, and I think a lot of people who had planned to visit changed their plans for obvious reasons,” Sholly said. “But I really see our attendance this year as an anomaly due to the flood. I expect next year will be very busy, and we will rebound quickly in 2023.”

There were other milestones to celebrate in addition to the unprecedented flood response, Sholly said.

After two years of construction and nearly $28 million invested, Dunraven Pass on the Grand Loop Road was reopened. The park opened its Tribal Heritage Center, which provides Native American artists, scholars and presenters with an opportunity to educate visitors. Bison populations, Sholly said, are the highest they’ve been since 1872.

New challenges arose too, Sholly said. Most notably, there were nearly two catastrophic failures of the park’s wastewater systems at Canyon and Old Faithful. Upgrades to the systems were one of his priorities for the 2023 season, along with continued repairs of flood damage.

“Wastewater is one of those invisible elements that you need to host visitation,” Sholly said. “The infrastructure is old and needs to be replaced sooner than later.”

All in all, the park had an unconventional anniversary year, but not an unsuccessful one, he said. And all signs point to a strong and successful return in 2023.

“I think we accomplished a lot of what we wanted to in the 150th, despite the flooding,” Sholly said. “We have a lot to be proud of, and a lot to look forward to.”

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