National Parks Journal: Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly Goes In-Depth on Park’s Historic Flooding

by Jon D. B.
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In a historic press conference, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly details the “catastrophic” June 2022 Flood Event.

“It’s mid-June. The busy season for Yellowstone. Not only was the park full of visitors, the gateway communities were also full. We had to make a decision, because of unsafe conditions, to move thousands of visitors out of northern Yellowstone and push them south into the southern loop. We had thousands of visitors stranded in the park, and in Gardiner,” Superintendent Sholly begins of the Monday, June 13 flooding that swept Yellowstone National Park (YELL).

Sholly and YELL officials would work quickly to remove all visitors from harms way. Thankfully, no casualties have come of June’s historic flooding. But Monday was just the beginning.

During day two of the flood event, Yellowstone’s superintendent took the time to discuss the fallout of the flood’s “unprecedented” first 48 hours with reporters, including Outsider. The damage was, and remains “catastrophic,” he says, but overall Sholly remains hopeful that America’s first national park will emerge even stronger than before. Not without “considerable work and effort,” however.

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Superintendent Cam Sholly assesses “catastrophic” damage to Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Flood Event, 2022 flooding. June 18, 2022. (Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

“We have a considerable amount of rockslides, mudslides, and trees down, and a substantial amount of debris,” Sholly assesses. “In some sections, the roads have been completely washed away. The Yellowstone River has changed course in these areas, perhaps permanently. In sections where the river washed across roads, we have a substantial amount of trees down, which will require considerable work to clear,” he paints of the park’s current state.

How the Yellowstone National Park Flood Began

As for how 2022’s catastrophic flood happened, Sholly offers the following: “Over the weekend and into Sunday night, we received about two-to-three inches of rain, with some warming temperatures. That dropped onto about five-and-a-half inches of snow that melted. This caused a major flood event in most of the northern range of Yellowstone from the Yellowstone River, Lamar River, and all of their tributaries.”

He explains that “the impacts to the park [are] most serious in the area between Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana,” as he shows a map of the park. “This is not going to be an easy rebuild,” he adds with a pause. “There’s things we’re going to need to do to stabilize once flood waters come down and assess what the water damage is along the length of that corridor.”

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Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly discusses the reopening of the park after historic 2022 flooding. June 19, 2022. (Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

The flood event rose Yellowstone River water levers above any record in history. Churning rapids washed out the sides of mountains, reshaped valleys, destroyed park structures, and completely removed entire sections of roads. Most notably, the section between Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner was severely compromised, with the North and Northeast Entrance Roads also losing entire swaths of surface.

Rivers reshape landscapes. It’s what they do. They carve canyons as vast as the Grand Canyon, and build landscapes as one-of-a-kind as Yellowstone. Yet as Sholly cites, our changing climate has more and more natural disasters shaping the lands at a far more rapid pace than any other time in America’s history.

The Yellowstone Flood Event of 2022 has been called “unprecedented,” “catastrophic,” and “historic” for these reasons. But Sholly takes issue with that last term because of climate change.

‘I have heard this is a ‘thousand year event,’ whatever that means these days’

“These aren’t my words, but I have heard this is a ‘thousand year event,’ whatever that means these days, as they seem to be happening more and more frequently,” Sholly offers. “I’m not sure what context to put this in, historically. Except, from what I understand, one of the highest cubic-feet-per-second ratings of the Yellowstone River was recorded in the 90s at 31,000 CFS. And Sunday night, we were at 51,000 CFS, just to give you an idea from the last major water event here in the park.”

Before repairs are made on existing roadways, bridges, and structures around the Yellowstone River, “We need the right people assessing whether it makes sense to build here again in the future,” Sholly continues. In addition to main roads, “We have hundreds of hundreds of bridges in the backcountry alone that will need to assess,” he adds.

But it’s not just roadways the flood would alter forever.

Yellowstone National Park Staff’s Lives Upended

“This was a housing unit that six of our employees and families lived in near Gardiner. It was fairly immediately compromised Sunday night by high flood waters to the point where we evacuated it immediately,” Sholly explains of the image below.

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Yellowstone flood event 2022: Employee housing compromised by Yellowstone River. (Photo: Gina Riquier / NPS, YELL)

“This entire structure succumbed to flood pressures and went into the Yellowstone River just north of Gardiner. That entire structure floated on the water for about five miles. Many of our employees lost a considerable amount, so we’re working on a full range of actions to support those employees,” Sholly continues.

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(Yellowstone flood event 2022: Employee housing in Yellowstone River. Courtesy / Gina Riquier, NPS, YELL)

“I also think that this event shows that it’s important to make sure that we’re building our assets in a resilient way,” he adds of the flood’s fallout, “understanding that the future may be different than the past.”

Like many facets of Yellowstone National Park, this employee housing is now a memory:

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Yellowstone flood event 2022: Employee housing site after flood. (NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

Yet all of the above will soon serve as proof of Yellowstone staff’s resilience. Within days, Sholly would announce plans to reopen the southern loop of the park to the public. It did so at 8 AM Wednesday, July 22. And passionate patrons showed up in droves.

‘The million-dollar question is, ‘What’s the damage?’ And the answer is, we don’t know yet.’

The day before, officials announced further reopening plans. 80% of the park will reopen to the public in “a matter of weeks,” Sholly offers excitedly. This became possible via a whopping $50 million in emergency funding from the National Park Service. But there’s still a long way to go before Yellowstone will return to full operations.

“The million-dollar question is, ‘What’s the damage?’ And the answer is, we don’t know yet,” Sholly sighed towards the end of the press conference. Yet Yellowstone’s superintendent remains hopeful, wearing that signature smile. There’s so much to be grateful for; like the lack of known wildlife casualties in the park, and the absence of any public or staff fatalities.

Yellowstone flood event 2022: Superintendent, Cam Sholly, speaks to employees at Mammoth employee meeting. June 19, 2022. (Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

That smile shined even brighter as Sholly addressed the possibilities of reopening a stronger Yellowstone fellow staff by his side.

“We need to continue to work together to identify what needs to be done. And make sure what we’re doing here can accomplish the mission of service. Which is: protection of this place, first and foremost, and enjoyment of this place at the same time. This is sometimes contradictory, but it is really important. Thanks to all of you for helping us achieve that,” he concluded the conference.

Superintendent Sholly is, indeed, a man of hope. And as he’s proven through this sweeping natural disaster, he’s always been the right man for the job.

Outsider will return with more from Yellowstone National Park, and our National Parks Journal, soon. All of our best to the incredible staff serving the rehabilitation of America’s first – and finest – national park. For ways to help Yellowstone and gateway communities, please visit the park’s NPS website.

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