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Environmental assessment finds no significant impact on South Unit loop road; project makes headway

The National Park Service announced the availability of the “Finding of No Significant Impact on the South Unit Loop Road Reconstruction Project Environmental Assessment.” The second alternative, which was preferred, was selected.

A group of governmental officials and stakeholders, including Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau, view the condition of the eroded roadway on Scenic Loop Drive in Theodore Roosevelt National Park during a special visit in August of 2021. The National Park Service announced Wednesday, April 27, 2022, the availability of the "Finding of No Significant Impact on the South Unit Loop Road Reconstruction Project Environmental Assessment," further making progress on the construction project. Park officials are expecting the bid process to begin shortly, followed by construction in the fall.
A group of governmental officials and stakeholders, including Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau, view the condition of the eroded roadway on Scenic Loop Drive in Theodore Roosevelt National Park during a special visit in August of 2021. The National Park Service announced Wednesday, April 27, 2022, the availability of the "Finding of No Significant Impact on the South Unit Loop Road Reconstruction Project Environmental Assessment," further making progress on the construction project. Park officials are expecting the bid process to begin shortly, followed by construction in the fall.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

DICKINSON — The closed section of Scenic Loop Drive located in Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit recently had an environmental assessment done, and came back with no significant impact. The results released Wednesday by the National Park Service has sparked positivity for park officials as the construction project continues strides of progress.

The project will stabilize sections of failed roadway along Scenic Loop Drive between mile markers 22 and 28, which has been closed since 2019. In partnership with the Federal Highway Administration, Central Federal Lands Highway Division, the project will reconstruct 6.15 miles of roadway with specific treatment options, including subgrade excavation, structural improvements, drainage improvements as well as pullout and parking area improvements.

“We are thrilled to reach this point in the planning and design process, with hopes to have a contractor on board in late summer,” TRNP Superintendent Angie Richman said in a press release.

Speaking to The Dickinson Press, TRNP Deputy Superintendent Maureen McGee-Ballinger noted that this will not be a temporary fix, but a “permanent fix” to the roadway.

“It's very exciting to be able to be moving forward on this project. We want to make sure that this is a repair that is long term; this is not a short term fix. So we don't have to close this road again, it doesn't fail again,” McGee-Ballinger said. “So when we take our time, make sure that we did it right and had all the engineering done correctly, we can have for years to come a great scenic route for everyone to enjoy.”

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According to the National Park Service website , the project will resolve the degraded road conditions and address unstable slopes, pumping of subgrade over impermeable clays, dissolution voids in embankment fill and the subsequent piping of fine fill material and poor subgrade soils.

A heavily eroded stretch of road on Scenic Loop Drive in Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit is shown.
A heavily eroded stretch of road on Scenic Loop Drive in Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit is shown.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

The selected alternative to the signed Finding of No Significant Impact also includes landslide mitigation and minimization measures, such as stabilization — which will protect natural aesthetics and reduce environmental impact.

“This is very exciting to have that environmental impact done, the assessment done on wetlands and floodplains and all the compliance completed so we can move forward with the contractor” McGee-Ballinger added.

Most of Scenic Loop Drive, which currently winds for 24 miles across the rolling Badlands, has been operable apart from the 4-mile stretch that’s been closed since 2019. McGee-Ballinger remarked that though it’s been a 48-mile round trip for visitors for the past three years, it’s a complex process to reconstruct the roadway and it will take time.

At Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit, severely eroded stretch of roadway on Scenic Loop Drive is pictured.
At Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit, severely eroded stretch of roadway on Scenic Loop Drive is pictured.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

“The material here in the Badlands, there is a material called bentonite — the clay-like material — that will absorb water and then it will slide. And so if the water is channeled anywhere near the road, it slides under; that totally undermines the road, then the whole surface collapses. So what you have to do is find a way to shore it up. You've got to find a way to channel that water so it's not going to be moving under the road. And then you have to create a stable road base,” she said, explaining, “So it does take some time, but it's only a portion of the road that's closed. There's only 4 miles that are closed right now. We're going to address a total of 6 miles (as) a little preventive measure… We want to make sure we do it right.”

McGee-Ballinger noted that the next step for the project will be the bidding process. By this fall, some preliminary efforts will begin. The project is slated for completion in 2023.

“As you know, living in this area, the construction window can be limited,” she said, adding, “We just had two big blizzards in April. So this fall, hopefully we’ll be able to finalize the contract and get things started… If you can have a great summer and a longer season that you can work in, you can work a little bit faster. If it’s a really rainy summer, it can slow down the work. So weather is a big factor.”

Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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