COOKE CITY — Yellowstone National Park has fewer than 20 days to meet its own deadline. The park set October 15th as the goal for reopening flood-ravaged northern roads.
“We set a very aggressive target and I think that people need to understand that this is not easy,” said park superintendent Cam Sholly.
But he said meeting the date is not impossible.
“The fifteenth is still doable. We’re always said we’ll continue to do work after the fifteenth, but we want to make sure it’s safe,” said Sholly.
The undertaking is massive. An old one-lane road, dating to 1879, is being reworked to become a modern two-lane paved highway in a project measured in just months.
“In a normal project, you’ve got normally years to do something like this. You’ve got years of planning and engineering that went into it. And, you know, we did that in weeks,” said Sholly, who met with MTN News at his office in Mammoth.
In the Gateway community of Cooke City, struggling tourism business owners said they have faith in Sholly.
“Cam Sholly has been gracious to us," said Elkhart Lodge owner Lisa Ohlinger. "He’s been keeping us informed. He seems to be a really trustworthy guy, and when he tells me that park’s going to be open October 15th, I expect it.”
Xanterra’s Mike Keller agreed.
“We’ve actually been telling people for a while that Mammoth will be open this winter," he said. "The National Park Service assured us they would have it ready for us.”
In Silver Gate, Business owner Ben Zavora can’t wait for the roads to reopen.
“I mean really, we’re only three weeks away and we’re going to have the road open again and we’re going to be able to get back to normal,” he said.
Zavora and all other business owners in Silver Gate and Cooke City sit behind the north and northeast entrances to the park. Once winter sets in those will be the only ways for eager snowmobilers to reach the small communities. Those entrances were first closed after historic flooding washed out key roads in early June.
In Silver Gate, Henry Finkbeiner called the flood, “A financial tsunami.”
“We are easily fifty percent down, probably a little more than that down, from last summer,” said Kay Whittle at Antlers Lodge in Cooke City.
Teri Briggs at Big Moose Resort, east of Cooke City said, “We’ve been hit so hard from the flooding that happened. We’re down seventy percent to eighty percent of business.”
In describing his losses, Zavora said he was, “Probably running at about one-third of normal revenue.”
While Ohlinger in Cooke City said, “We were less than fifty percent easy, probably running about forty.”
Henry Finkbeiner added, “We had two people full time for three weeks giving away, refunding deposits.”
Kay Whittle explained that due to the summer losses, the winter season is her key to survival. “This winter there is just no way we can make it through a winter and be down, at all, really," she said. "And for sure not fifty percent. The winter is so important.”
That’s why business owners depend on the park roads being opened. But there’s still a lot of work to do. Crews are still working on a new section near Mammoth that cuts out a steep grade which would be difficult or impossible to use in winter. Closer to Silver Gate and Cooke City, trucks constantly haul in fill and rocks to shore up the damaged roads. It’s a race to beat winter snows, but Sholly promises no shortcuts will be taken.
“I think that everyone would agree with me that if we end up having to need an extra week or two, to make sure that the engineering and the road are completely safe, that’s a better way to go than opening too soon and having some failure,” said Sholly.
For instance, five thousand feet of guard rail for the Gardiner to Mammoth road is late being delivered. It’s a detail Sholly says is vital.
“There are sections on that road, where if you go over, you’re going to die. And so, we want to make sure that it’s as safe as possible,” Sholly told MTN News.
The price tag so far just for the Mammoth to Gardiner road is $20 million.