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Yellowstone floods highlight gaps in the government's infrastructure plan

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Parts of Yellowstone National Park reopened to the public this week. But major park infrastructure, like roads and bridges, will need to be replaced after historic flooding. The disaster raises new questions for the Biden administration, whose success in infrastructure spending was not matched with climate funding. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Speaking at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced $100 million from the president's infrastructure law that she says will quickly go to clearing out overgrown forests and rehabilitating lands to prevent fires. Wildfires in New Mexico, Haaland's home state, have burned record acreage this spring. But here in the Northwest, everyone's talking about flooding.

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DEB HAALAND: With respect to Yellowstone, my goodness, our first national park. And it's devastating - devastating.

SIEGLER: At least 10,000 visitors and park employees had to evacuate with little notice. Up to five inches of rain fell on the Yellowstone River basin, which was already swollen with spring runoff.

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HAALAND: I think the main issue there is that the staff at Yellowstone has been able to evacuate people successfully, keep everyone safe. And that is really our main goal at this point, is just to make sure that everyone's safe and that they get out of danger.

SIEGLER: The full extent of damage in Yellowstone is still not known. Nor is there a definitive timeline for how long it will take to rebuild wiped-out roads, bridges and other infrastructure from the torrential rain, flooding and mudslides. Even before the flooding, though, there was a huge backlog of critical maintenance infrastructure projects at parks, including Yellowstone. And while the Biden administration is on the road promoting its trillion-dollar infrastructure law, climate experts are quick to point out what's not in the bill. That's the bigger and more expensive climate resiliency projects in the law's stalled companion, the Build Back Better Plan.

MICHAEL WARA: There's a lot that's left undone. And it's unfortunate, but that's where we are.

SIEGLER: Michael Wara studies climate resiliency at Stanford.

WARA: And I think we're going to continue to pay costs, like the costs to Montana of closing Yellowstone.

SIEGLER: Wara applauds the federal government for finally pushing for an infrastructure overhaul in this country. But he says, the reality is most of our infrastructure is old and built on assumptions about weather and climate that no longer apply.

WARA: Many of the impacts of climate change in the western U.S. that were predicted for 2050 are becoming real problems today.

SIEGLER: Like the major wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico that began igniting weeks ahead of what's normal coming off another warm and dry winter. And in the north, in places like Yellowstone, all the moisture - when it does come - now seems to fall all at once. Park superintendent Cam Sholly nodded to this in the hours after the worst of the flooding and the entire 3,400-square-mile park was evacuated. He predicts at least one highway at the northern entrance will have to be completely rerouted and built; otherwise, it'll just flood again.

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CAM SHOLLY: I've heard this is a thousand-year event, whatever that means. These days, they seem to be happening more and more frequently.

SIEGLER: The still-unfolding crisis is occurring as Yellowstone is supposed to be marking its 150th anniversary. Instead, the focus on disaster recovery is just beginning. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.