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Yellowstone Park feels the love after historic flooding

First came the flood, now as waves of summer visitors return, there's an outpouring of support and admiration for Yellowstone, the first national park in the world.

'To see people come back here and enjoy it and love it, it’s even more special,' says Yellowstone park ranger

Ranger Rich Jehle surveys crowds at Old Faithful as part of his duties as the West District Interpretive Ranger in Yellowstone National Park. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Tourists are once again flocking to famed Yellowstone National Park after flooding shut the iconic location down earlier this summer.

Crowds are returning to hike more than 1,600 kilometres worth of trails, catch a glimpse of the bison, elk and bears, and show their love for a location synonymous with outdoor adventure.

Ranger Rich Jehle points to a handwritten note on a bulletin board in the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center in Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming. It's from a junior ranger who heard about the major flooding in the area in June and wanted to help.

"It made me cry. I think it made everybody who read it cry; it's just amazing," says Jehle. "That's what it's all about."
A note from a junior ranger in Idaho offering to help the National Park Service after the flooding in Yellowstone National Park. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Both at home, in Canada, and around the world, our passion for parks has only grown during the pandemic. The CBC Radio special For the Love of Parks explores the effects our green spaces have on us and the effect we have on them. 

In the program we meet a Vancouver doctor who's prescribing time in nature, take a hike through Toronto's Rouge National Urban Park and examine the surge of support for Yellowstone National Park in the wake of major flooding.
This aerial photo provided by the National Park Service shows a washed out road at North Entrance Road, of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont., on June 13, 2022. Gardiner, a town just north of the park, was isolated, with water covering the road north of the town and a mudslide blocking the road to the south. (Doug Kraus/National Park Service/The Associated Press)

It was June 12 when unprecedented amounts of rainfall caused substantial flooding, rockslides, and mudslides within Yellowstone National Park.

"It was a flood event that nobody has ever seen in our lifetime certainly. It's been called a 500 year event," said Jehle, the West District Interpretive Ranger who's been working for the park service for 35 years.

LISTEN | Radio special For the Love Of Parks

Our passion for parks has only grown during the past two pandemic years. In For the Love of Parks, host Adrienne Lamb explores the effect our Canadian green spaces have on us, and our effect on them. We’ll meet a Vancouver doctor prescribing time in nature, take a hike through Toronto's Rouge National Urban Park, and examine the surge of support for Yellowstone National Park in the wake of major flooding.

Historic water levels caused severe damage to roads, water and wastewater systems, power lines and other critical park infrastructure.

"I'd never seen anything like this. Where it rained that hard for that long without letting up." A reminder, he said, that ultimately mother nature is really in charge. 

A house falls into the Yellowstone river due to flooding in Gardiner, Montana, U.S., June 13, 2022 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. (Angie Lilly/Reuters)

The torrential downpour forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 tourists, employees and residents near the park. Remarkably, no one was reported injured or killed.

But Jehle said the "outpouring of love and support" from across North America and around the world in the aftermath has been a powerful thing.

Emails, social media posts and $50 million in U.S. federal government funding to kick-start recovery efforts all send a clear message "that national parks and places like Yellowstone are worth preserving, and saving, and passing on." 

Today the north and northeast entrances remain closed but visitors can take the south and north loops of the park with more than 90 pre cent of roadways safe to travel while construction crews continue to work to repair the remaining damage.
Tourist on the boardwalk at the Fountain Paint Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park. (Submitted by Ian Scott)

"As we've managed to reopen the park and to see people come back here and enjoy it and love it, it's even more special," said Jehle.

The world's first national park

This was supposed to be Yellowstone's big year but for a different reason, the 150th anniversary celebrations of the world's first national park.

Established by a protection act signed on March 1, 1872, this 8,991 square kilometre space in the northwest corner of Wyoming, and extending into Montana and Idaho, is home to an abundance of wildlife and more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, 500 of which are geysers — or about half of all thought to exist on the planet.

Annual visitation to the park hovers around 4 million but people have spent time in the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. There are currently 27 tribes or nations that have historic connections to the lands and resources including the Assiniboine, Crow and Sioux. 

The park's name is derived from the Minnetaree, who called it Mi-tse-a-da-zi, or yellow rock river, most likely due to the yellowish formations of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

The Yellowstone River has carved down more than 300 metres to create the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Between this rich history and natural attractions, Elizabeth Halpenny isn't surprised people "want to help the park recover somehow."

The University of Alberta professor studies tourism, marketing, environmental psychology and protected-areas management.

"We have this long relationship with our parks. When they experience extreme damage, maybe it's a wildfire, maybe it's a flood, people do have a strong outpouring of emotion," Halpenny said.

In reviewing the flooding and subsequent recovery efforts there are lessons other parks can takeaway. 

"They did a tremendous job of getting people out of the right places at the right times, responding very quickly to a highly unanticipated weather event," said Halpenny.

And she believes the frequency and severity of extreme weather will be a part of the future, not just for the oldest national park in the world but all parks moving forward because "we are living in a climate crisis."
A group of visitors gather around ranger Harlan Kredit, now in his 50th summer of service to Yellowstone, to hear stories on the Fishing Bridge. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adrienne Lamb

Host/Producer

Adrienne Lamb is the host and producer of Our Edmonton featured weekly on CBC TV. She served for several years as CBC Radio's national arts reporter in Edmonton. Prior to moving to Alberta in 2001, Adrienne worked at CBC in Ontario and New Brunswick. Adrienne is a graduate of Western University with a degree in English and Anthropology and a Masters in Journalism.

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