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The northern half of Yellowstone National Park may remain closed the rest of the year


Yellowstone National Park remains closed this weekend after catastrophic floods overwhelmed roads and bridges five days ago - that as a summer tourism season is just getting under way. Wyoming Public Radio reporter Caitlin Tan has the latest. Caitlin, thank you for joining us.

CAITLIN TAN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: Can you start off by explaining why this flooding was so intense?

TAN: Yeah, you know, so we had really heavy rains on top of normal spring runoff, when mountain snow melts and fills up streams and rivers. So starting Sunday night, officials noticed rivers in the park were overflowing. The Yellowstone River was nearly double that of historic levels set in the '90s. By Monday morning, the northern half of the park was flooded. Roads were falling apart into rivers here, including the Yellowstone River, and bridges were even collapsing. There were rock and mudslides. Even a big house that some Yellowstone employees lived in outside of the park fell into the river. So by midday Monday, the park decided to evacuate visitors and shut down all entrances to inbound travel. Officials estimate they had to evacuate more than 10,000 people within 24 hours. Reportedly, everyone was OK - no flood-related injuries.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, but still, that's a lot. So what happens next? From what I understand, Yellowstone sees close to a million visitors a month in the summer.

TAN: That's exactly right. So as we speak, the park is still fully closed. Officials say the damage is so extensive in the northern half of the park that that area will likely remain closed for the rest of the year. But the plan is to reopen the southern half of the park, likely by next week. One major road repair has to happen before, though, so it's going to be a challenge. Here's the park superintendent, Cam Sholly.

CAM SHOLLY: We can't fit a million people per month in half of the park, so there's going to need to be some coordination and some things that we're going to need to work on to figure out how to get that southern loop open safely and not overwhelm the infrastructure in operations down there.

TAN: So one idea officials discussed is creating a reservation system to enter the park. Normally, you can visit the park whenever you want, as long as you're willing to wait in line. But with this proposal, people would have to sign up in advance.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, some communities around Yellowstone were affected by the flooding, too, but not all of them. Will you tell us about how those surrounding towns are being impacted?

TAN: Yeah, it was varied. So on the Montana side, which is where the northern entrances of the park are, there was extensive flooding as well. The park gateway towns of Gardiner and Cooke City, Mont., were cut off from roads during the peak of the flooding this week. These towns are likely going to suffer. They depend solely on Yellowstone tourism. And with the northern entrances of the park remaining closed, those towns likely won't see a lot of visitors. I should mention President Biden did sign a major disaster declaration for the area on Thursday. Now, further down near the southern entrance of the park is Jackson Hole. And Jackson didn't really see too much flooding, but it's been seeing a high volume of visitors since the flooding started. There's a lot of people who had vacation plans to stay in Yellowstone, so they're having to find accommodations elsewhere. This has even included camping at the local fairgrounds.

KURTZLEBEN: So what about people who have plans to visit Yellowstone later this summer? What should they do?

TAN: You know, it's still a little unclear. Like I mentioned earlier, it might be a little harder to get into the park this year if only the southern half is open. Officials are encouraging people to keep checking the park webpage for updates. Otherwise, I've heard a lot of people encouraging visitors to go see other nearby attractions, things like Grand Teton National Park and some of the nearby towns that are part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Wyoming Public Radio reporter Caitlin Tan. Caitlin, thank you so much.

TAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.