Professionals from the Park County government, Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming Department of Transportation and U.S. Geological Survey have all examined the sliding hillside above Squaw Creek Road in the Crandall area.
More big slides are possible and “there’s really nothing that we can do on that slope to minimize or stop landslides,” Shoshone National Forest North Zone District Ranger Sue Stresser told a room packed full of area residents and property owners at a Friday night meeting in Crandall.
Evaluations of the landslide have determined that it’s complex, starts high up the mountainside and is massive — running approximately 1.5 to 2 miles long along Squaw Creek Road (officially known as Road XUX) and Rustic Road. Dozens of privately-owned cabins lie along the routes inside the Shoshone Forest; two cabins on Squaw Creek Road were destroyed by sliding mud and other debris in late May.
“I know there is a ton of concern out there — and for good reason,” Stresser said. “This is really scary stuff.”
Experts with the U.S. Geological Survey have told Stresser there’s multiple main factors causing the ground to slide. First, the area is an ancient landslide with unstable slopes and drainages that have water seeping into the ground, she said. Then, there’s been a series of wet years that followed a long period of drought, “so all that water’s flowing in and saturating that soil to a point that it hasn’t been before.”
“As it keeps raining, it’s like taking a shower in a full bathtub,” Stresser said. “That water is going to go somewhere. … The soil just can’t take any more water.”
Park County plans to soon start rebuilding a roughly 600-foot section of the road that’s been wiped out by the slides or covered in mud and debris. But the earth is continuing to move. County crews have been waiting for things to dry out, but rain has continued to hit the area — including a brief downpour in the middle of Friday’s meeting.
Work is tentatively scheduled to start in the first part of next week.
“We’re going to do everything we can,” Park County Commissioner Tim French told attendees, noting the county has set aside $250,000 for the work. “Nobody knows it more than you folks — we’ve got a mess; kind of an unprecedented mess.”
Under the county’s current plan, about 450 feet of Road XUX will be rebuilt using a mesh-like geogrid that’s meant to serve as a kind of snowshoe — spreading the weight of passing traffic across a broader area and reducing the risk of further slides.
Park County Engineer Brian Edwards said the work will be slow and deliberate to avoid putting any people or properties at risk. The trickiest part will come on the far end of the slide, where a cabin owned by Ardell Smith of Powell has slid into the place where the road used to be; below the cabin lies a small canyon that will likely need to be filled in.
Edwards said the work will be “full of uncertainty” and that plans will likely have to adapt to the conditions. However, he said it’s the best option for getting a road in by the winter.
Edwards said crews will move slowly and deliberately to make sure neither employees nor private property are being put at risk.
French asked residents to be patient as the county waits for conditions to dry out.
With winter only a few months away, “we’ve got to move fast,” he said. “We’ll throw a lot of stuff at it; a lot of equipment and we’re throwing a lot of money at it, too.”
French later assured Powell resident Paul Rodriguez, who owns a cabin at the very end of the road, that the county wouldn’t be scared off by a little rain.
“Well, it’s been a month, you know,” Rodriguez responded.
Stresser said that, in talking with the USGS engineers, waiting is the only practical option.
“The only tool that I have in my toolbox is time and sun,” she said of options for stabilizing the area.
Diverting the water that’s coming down the hillside would prove too difficult, in part because there’s water running underground, she and Edwards said.
As for trying to anchor the slide at the bottom of the slope, “we have 2 miles of potential slides and we don’t have enough material on the whole Shoshone forest to dump and make a bookend to hold all that in place,” Stresser said.
She encouraged people to stay off the slide area, saying that even if the ground looks dry, it may remain soupy underneath. Stresser also asked cabin owners in the area to stay alert, including suggesting they sleep on the upper levels of their homes.
In response to concerns from residents, county officials indicated they will put up closure signs to keep onlookers and other non-residents out of the area.
Several residents also expressed concern about a spring-fed pipeline that had been providing water to a number of the surrounding cabins, but was wiped out by the slides. Stresser said the Forest Service will work with people who’ve lost their water service.
Squaw Creek cabin owners who own properties beyond the blockage in the road have still been able to get to their residences through a privately-owned bridge and road; many thanks were expressed to those property owners during the meeting. County officials indicated they may help restore that road and bridge after all the construction work is done.
One resident suggested the community also chip in money to assist the owners of the two destroyed cabins, the Smith family and Charlie and Jamie Cooley, whose losses likely will not be covered by insurance.
After things dry out, Shoshone officials hope to gather the funds to do a “major assessment” of the slide area.
“For the Forest Service, this is just looking more into [the] geology and Mother Nature and figuring out, you know, can we tinker without causing more problems?” Stresser said.