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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — The U.S. Secretary of the Interior visited the country’s first national park on Friday, where she praised bipartisan legislation that has allowed the park to fund road improvements, bridge replacements and the rehabilitation of historic sites.

At an overlook on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland touted Yellowstone’s plan to invest $121.5 million in improving park infrastructure — a move made possible through the passage of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act.

Money from the act’s Legacy Restoration Fund is going toward rehabilitating 22 miles of the Grand Loop Road from Old Faithful to West Thumb and replacing the Lewis River Bridge south of Yellowstone Lake. It’s also funding the restoration of two historic buildings by Old Faithful and Fort Yellowstone, according to the Department of the Interior.

“Great American Outdoors Act investments in the park’s infrastructure in 2021 alone are expected to support nearly 1,600 jobs and contribute $333.9 million to the nation’s economy,” Haaland said. “These investments are absolutely necessary to support our parks as we manage record-breaking visitation and protect against threats to our natural resources from climate change.”

Yellowstone National Park was the secretary’s last stop on a weeklong tour of the West, which wound through Washington, California and Wyoming. On Friday, Haaland spent time canoeing on Yellowstone Lake. Her car “was escorted by some buffalo” on the way, she said.

Haaland was traveling to promote the Biden administration’s investments in infrastructure, clean energy and conservation on public lands. It was part of the America the Beautiful Initiative, a national call to action to “pursue the first-ever national conservation goal…of conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2023,” according to a May news release from the White House.

“As we experience record visitation at parks and public lands across the country, now is the time to make the investments in our lands and waters that are long overdue,” Haaland said in a news release. “The Great American Outdoors Act is bipartisanship at its best, and it is through federal investments and state, Tribal, and local partnerships that we can be stewards of these lands for generations to come.”

Congress passed and former President Donald Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act last year.

The law authorized full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, freeing up money for deferred maintenance and infrastructure projects on public lands nationwide. Several projects are in Yellowstone National Park and the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

The U.S. Senate has passed and the U.S. House of Representatives is considering another bipartisan bill that Haaland called “the most significant long-term investment in United States infrastructure in nearly a century.”

The approximately $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would fund road and bridge maintenance, electric vehicle charging stations and electric buses across the country. It would fund green-energy public transit systems, water infrastructure and renewable energy grids, and numerous other initiatives.

Money from the infrastructure bill would go toward rural water projects, forest thinning and prescribed burning projects, flood mitigation projects and telecommunications projects in Montana and other states.

“The bipartisan infrastructure deal that passed the Senate this week includes nearly $1.5 billion for the Interior’s Wildland Fire Management Program so we can improve firefighter pay, reduce wildfire fuels, and restore the lands after the fires,” Haaland said on Friday. “It’s a big deal and I want to see it cross the finish line as soon as possible so we can start putting more Americans to work.”

Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, said the park has seen incredible conservation successes, but staff are challenged by the threats of the future, especially through climate change and increasing visitation.

Many of Yellowstone’s rivers and streams are seeing historic low flows this summer, which is having an impact on native fisheries, Sholly said. The low flows prompted evening fishing restrictions on rivers and streams parkwide in mid-July.

“We’ve had 13 fires in Yellowstone this season, and many more… in the surrounding states,” he said. “We expect that these drier conditions, which are similar to 1988, will continue to challenge us.”

Beyond the drought conditions, July 2021 was the first month in Yellowstone’s history where staff counted more than 1 million recreation visits, according to Sholly. It’s the continuation of a sharp visitation uptick that started in the months after pandemic-related shutdowns in spring, 2020.

Increasing visitation means that park staff and their partners need to find ways to create quality experiences for visitors while protecting the park’s resources, Sholly said.

That’s part of why the park has launched a fleet of electric, automated vehicles in Canyon Village to test public transportation options in a national park setting. The driverless TEDDY shuttles were activated earlier this summer as part of a pilot project.

Mike Reynolds, National Park Service regional director, said that Yellowstone National Park is an innovation hub and a leader for visitor use management and responding to climate change.

“We’re faced with a lot of challenges, but I think the country will find that the national parks and the National Park Service are really up to help lead through those challenges,” he said. “We’re using Yellowstone as a place to think about the future.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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