500-Year Floods in Yellowstone

I had the great pleasure and joy of attending my oldest son’s high school graduation a few days ago in Western Washington. Shoutout to Henry Wyeth Oates, headed to Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State University) where he is planning to study civil engineering and work on public infrastructure projects of various kinds.

Amidst the steady stream of joyful tears and celebration, I revisited many photos of our family’s past during the trip. And, along the photographic journey of my family’s life, multiple visits to Yellowstone National Park stood out.

Yellowstone and the region around it is sacred ground for many people, particulary the Indigenous Kiowa and Crow, Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d'Alene Nez, Shoshone, and Perce among others. The region’s mountains, mudpots, geysers, and wildlife are simply too rich and diverse to explain in words. I’ll just say that I hope you have/will be able to experience Yellowstone for yourself.

The Greater Yellowstone region is one of the USA’s top tourism destinations for good reason. There aren't that many places you can travel and see wild herds of elk and bison roaming through rushing rivers of trout, dodging their still-active wolf and bear predators. And, unfortunately, historic flooding in the park is putting a damper on visiting Yellowstone this summer.

One of those aforementioned photos that I happened upon a few days ago.

The park experienced a 500-year flood last week, sending a few homes into the region’s creeks and streams while pummeling roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. The damage is severe, including harm to many buildings. Yellowstone’s North Loop is expected to be closed for more than a year. That means Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Falls, the Roosevelt Lodge, and Lamar Valley are going to be shut off from visitors for a while.

Like many rural places dependent on tourism and visitors, the tourist towns of Gardiner, Silver Gate, and Cooke City, Montana are in deep trouble. Their section of the Yellowstone roadways are going to be out of commission for months, if not years.

This is gonna hit Gardiner particularly hard because it has already been struggling for a while as this Smithsonian Magazine article explains (and props to Keep It Rural reader Shel Anderson for sharing):

“In spring 2020, quarantine orders cut off the flow of tourists to Yellowstone and threw Gardiner and the park’s other gateway communities into economic disarray. Then, the surge of tourists heading back into the region in summer 2020 and 2021 put stress on hotels and restaurants experiencing massive labor shortages, as well as hospitals dealing with out-of-towners who contracted Covid while on the road. The pandemic also brought a large new population of transplants to the region, most of them white-collar workers who could log into their jobs from anywhere with a decent Wi-Fi signal.

As a result of this tourism boom, housing prices skyrocketed, and an increasing number of apartments and houses in Gardiner were turned into Airbnbs and other short-term rentals, making it difficult for people who want to work at the park and its related businesses to find a place to live. The situation has created friction between locals and visitors.

These demographic shifts, like every aspect of Gardiner’s history, are both beneficial and damaging to its prospects. Gardiner’s status as a gateway community is the reason for its success but also makes the town vulnerable to larger changes in government policy, technological innovation and global events.”

I feel for the people in the region who are trying to navigate a rural reality of increased climate/flood/drought/wildfire risk balanced with potential tourism benefits. It’s a puzzle. And that puzzle could be at least partially solved by federal investment in climate action, public lands, infrastructure, and more.

Rural Reading List

Outside of the natural disaster/tourism beat, there are other good reads for you from this week in rural journalism.

Roe v. Wade Decision Could Result in Heavier Burdens on Rural Maternity Units

Deesmealz health care whiz Liz Carey with an important story on rural maternity units in the likely post-Roe world.

The Cherokee Nation Signs a Historic Transportation Compact with the Federal Government

The Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma is paving the way for other tribes to have significant funding and autonomy related to their rural transportation priorities, including electric vehicles and more.

Rural Minnesota Pitchman Says Small-Town Life Sells Itself. Millennials and GenXers Are Buying.

Otter Tail County, Minnesota, has a Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator. This feature from today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune has the details of GenXers and Millenials moving from urban areas out to the Minnesota rurals.

Murder Rates Soar in Rural America

This Wall Street Journal infographic and photography project documents the growing murder rates in rural parts of the USA.

One More Thing: The Looming Hunger Cliff

Seasoned Keep It Rural readers know that rural communities are more reliant on federal nutrition and food assistance programs than urban places. Whether through SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps”) or WIC (a special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children) or school food programs, millions of rural kids depend on these programs for their meals and daily nutritional needs. 

On June 30, one of the key nutrition programs that helped — and continues to — help provide meals for kids over the summer throughout the Covid-19 pandemic could expire. As reported by FERN’s Bridget Huber in her piece “Advocates say a hungry summer looms if Congress can’t extend school meal waivers,” school-based summer food programs could come to a crashing halt very soon.

“We are very, very concerned that millions of kids are going to lose access to meals this summer,” Crystal FitzSimons (Director of School and Out-of-School-Time Programs at the Food Research & Action Center—FRAC) said to FERN. “We are continuing to call on Congress to extend the waivers and will breathe a sigh of relief when they take action.” Let’s hope our national leaders do their part and keep the anti-hunger programs running. Otherwise, already-strained food banks and emergency food programs are going to have to scramble ramp up even more.

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