‘Apres moi, le deluge,’ RV style

Although wildland fires typically get more press, the recent spate of epic floods has shouldered them aside in grabbing the top headlines. Yellowstone National Park got clobbered several weeks ago, followed more recently by record-topping rains that swept through . . . Death Valley, of all places, trapping approximately a thousand visitors and staff and so thoroughly devastating roads and other infrastructure that the national park is unlikely to reopen this year.

Farther east, three separate downpours over eight days, in Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois, destroyed swaths of entire communities and killed at least 39. As with the floods that devastated parts of Wyoming, Montana and California, decades-old rainfall records were broken and repeated references were made to “thousand-year floods,” meaning that the accepted odds of that much rain falling at one time were less than 1 in 1,000. Clearly, the odds-makers are overdue for an overhaul of their playbooks.

Such an unfortunate abundance of precipitation in some areas–even as drought intensifies in others–should no longer surprise anyone. Global warming produces a hotter atmosphere that can hold more moisture, resulting in heavier rainstorms. The surprise is that people with too much money and not enough horse-sense persist in thinking that weather extremes are for other people and won’t affect them. Or if they do concede that perhaps they should be paying closer attention, they nonetheless grossly underestimate the speed, size and scale of the forces arrayed against them.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a misbegotten plan to build a 57-site glamping campground in the floodway of the scenic Gallatin River in southwest Montana–the same area that was hit by the storm system that eviscerated Yellowstone National Park. The developer contends that he’ll be prepared for the inevitable flooding because the most vulnerable sites will be occupied by “Conestoga wagons” that can be towed out of the way when the river runs high.  The 19 wagon train emigrants who drowned in 1849 while crossing the River Platte, near Fort Laramie–among many others who suffered a similar fate–must not have had the right kind of wagon.

But now there’s a proposal in Nebraska that blows away the Gallatin River project for heedlessness. As tentatively approved this past week by the Valley City Council, just west of Omaha, up to 240 RV sites will be created along a three-quarter-mile stretch of the “wet side” of the Platte River–the bank more prone to flooding. Promotional literature for the proposed Platte River Resort, touting it as the state’s “premier RV resort,” evokes snorts of derision from local residents, who point out that the “resort” won’t have a sewage dump station, bathrooms or showers–never mind more resort-like amenities, like a swimming pool or snack bar–because permanent construction is not permitted in the state’s floodways.

Further overshadowing the project is the fact that there’s only one road in and out of the area. Immediately north of the site is a small residential community known as Sokol Camp, with 19 full-time residents whose homes barely escaped severe damage in a 2019 flood. If–when–another severe flood forces everyone to evacuate, they ask, what will happen when a couple of hundred RVs simultaneously clog the only escape route? “It’s in a floodway–it has a chance of flooding every single year,” pointed out John Winkler, general manager of a Nebraska agency tasked with reducing flood risks.

The city council split 3-2 on its preliminary approval, overruling its own planning commission and giving a green light for the developer to work on meeting 11 conditions required for a conditional use permit. Opponents have hired lawyers for possible legal action, and a recall effort against the three council members who voted aye is being discussed on the community’s Facebook page. And the developer appears to be digging in, justifying his plans with the claim that an RV park is the “highest and best use” of the property.

That’s the kind of transactional mule-headedness that often heralds tragedy. Sometimes the “best” use is use-less, which is to say, no use at all

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Luxury and rustic camping, part 2

If “the intersection between luxury and rustic camping,” detailed in my last post, doesn’t strike you as absurd, consider the following real-world example of just how looney-tunes this can become :

For the past couple of years, a proposal to build a 57-site glamping campground on the Gallatin River in southwest Montana has been bumping along despite vociferous local opposition. The problem? The proposed 16-acre Riverbend Glamping Resort is being planned for a mile-long spit of land that sits between two channels of the river, all of it either in or surrounded by the floodway. The locals think that’s nuts. As one wrote to local officials: “You know the land is going to flood. I know it is going to flood. . . . Anyone with the sense god gave geese knows this is going to flood.”

Then there are the gas, fiber-optic and sewage lines that have to be drilled under the Gallatin, just so glampers can relax in one of a shifting mix of safari tents, teepees, Airstreams or Conestoga “wagons,” the last bearing the same relationship to real prairie schooners as a Norwegian cruise liner has to the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. The locals aren’t wild about that, either, as they contemplate the possibility of line breaks and river contamination.

And if the mix of accommodations sounds a bit indefinite, that’s because the project itself seems to be a work in progress–something else that gets local juices flowing. To date, it’s not clear if a comprehensive proposal has ever been submitted for public review. Permit applications have been filed piecemeal, one for drilling under the river, a different one to build gravel site pads on the site. Fresh details emerge sporadically, such as plans for a second well–drilled right in the floodway–incidentally included in an unrelated filing. Planning restrictions seem irrelevant, including the provision in the Galatin Gateway Community Plan that new development “should be designed to avoid the flood plain and to provide a setback from the river.”

On balance, then, local residents see little upside and a whole lot of down. As adjacent landowner Kris Kruid claimed in her written objections, the proposal threatens to transform “a pristine, natural, blue-ribbon trout stream with a healthy ecosystem of plant and wildlife to a polluted, trash-filled waterway . . . and bank degradation from uneducated trespassers trampling the fragile riparian habitat.” Others bemoaned the impact of such development on the island’s beaver, whitetail deer and bald eagles–the kinds of attractions trumpeted in an ad campaign for the project that asserted, “tourists visit Montana to experience our natural beauty.”

Hogwash, wrote Scott Bosse in an op-ed piece in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. It’s “obvious” that the developer’s “primary motive is to make money off tourists who are willing to shell out a few hundred bucks a night to camp in a high hazard zone on a storied river.”

That was in February, when public comments on the gravel pads application were closed. In early April, the Gallatin County Commission unanimously decided that the project could move forward, with some stipulations. And on June 13 and 14 the Gallatin reached its highest flood stage since the record-setting flood of 1997, cresting at 6.7 feet above normal, nearly 9,000 cubic feet a second of water tearing down both channels of the river and covering much of the island that splits them.

During the public hearings, the glampground’s developer had responded to concerns about flooding by pointing to his planned use of Conestoga wagons. Utilities to the wagons would have quick shut-off couplers, permitting rapid relocation to higher ground. “The whole thing can be done with one staff member in under four hours,” he was quoted by the Chronicle. “We’re talking about less than four minutes for each wagon.”

That seems like an optimistic timetable, but being rousted in the middle of the night so your covered wagon can be hauled out of a river is the very definition of “rustic” and sure to be a hit with the glamping crowd. Now if only there were some way to throw in a buffalo stampede . . . .

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