Most of Yellowstone National Park should reopen within the next two weeks — much faster than originally expected after record floods pounded the region last week and knocked out major roads, federal officials said.

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said the world-renowned park will be able to accommodate fewer visitors for the time being, and it will take more time to restore road connections with some southern Montana communities.

Park officials said Sunday they’ll use $50 million in federal highway money to speed up road and bridge repairs. There’s still no timetable for repairs to routes between the park and areas of Montana where the recovery is expected to stretch for months.

Yellowstone will partially reopen at 8 a.m. Wednesday, more than a week after more than 10,000 visitors were forced out of the park when the Yellowstone and other rivers went over their banks after being swelled by melting snow and several inches of rainfall.

Only portions of the park that can be accessed along its “southern loop” of roads will be opened initially and access to the park’s scenic backcountry will be for day hikers only.

Within two weeks officials plan to also open the northern loop, after previously declaring that it would likely stay closed through the summer season. The northern loop would give visitors access to popular attractions including Tower Fall and Mammoth Hot Springs. They’d still be barred from the Lamar Valley, which is famous for its prolific wildlife including bears, wolves and bison that can often be seen from the roadside.

“That would get 75 to 80% of the park back to working,” National Park Service Director Charles “Chuck” Sams said Sunday during a visit to Yellowstone to gauge the flood’s effects.

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It will take much longer — possibly years — to fully restore two badly-damaged stretches of road that link the park with Gardiner to the north and Cooke City to the northeast.

During a tour of damaged areas on Sunday, park officials showed reporters one of six sections of road near Gardiner where the raging floodwaters obliterated most of the roadway.

Muddy water now courses through where the roadbed had been only a week ago. Trunks of huge trees litter the the surrounding canyon.

With no chances for an immediate fix, Sholly said 20,000 tons of material were being hauled in to construct a temporary, alternate route along an old road that runs above the canyon. That would let employees who work at the park headquarters in Mammoth get to their homes in Gardiner, Sholly said. The temporary route also could be used by commercial tour companies that have permits to lead guided visits.

“We’ve gotten a lot more done than we thought we would a week ago,” Sholly said. “It’s going to be a summer of adjustments.”

The scope of the damage is still being tallied by Yellowstone officials, but based on other national park disasters, it could take years and carry a steep price tag to rebuild in an environmentally sensitive landscape — with a huge underground plumbing system — …read more

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