No plows in Yellowstone
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
March 5, 2013
The dates for the proposed openings of the South Gate of Yellowstone have been corrected in this story — Ed.
The first Monday in March would ordinarily have been the day Yellowstone National Park plow drivers got to work, scraping away a winter’s worth of snow.
Instead, the plow fleet is sitting idle in a parking lot — the first and most visible sign in Wyoming of across-the-board budget cuts signed into effect by President Obama last week.
In addition to delaying plowing park roads, Yellowstone will hold off on filling permanent jobs, will hire fewer seasonal employees and will shorten employee seasons, park managers said Monday.
Yellowstone’s plans, submitted to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis weeks ago, are “now in ink,” spokesman Dan Hottle said.
Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk went over the details of the sequester plan, which calls for a 5 percent reduction in the park’s budget, in a media call Monday.
When planning for the fiscal year, Yellowstone had been anticipating a $35 million budget, Wenk said. In actuality, it is $1.745 million less.
“With the sequestration, our budget will be $33.255 million — which is approximately 11 percent less than we had in fiscal year 2010,” Wenk said. “It is a real cut in our budget.”
The primary cost-cutting measure, expected to save $1 million, is holding off on hiring vacant permanent park positions, Wenk said. Those positions will be filled after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Reducing the seasonal workforce from 435 to 400, Wenk said, will save another $400,000 — the second-largest pool of cuts.
Shortening the work seasons of those seasonal employees will save Yellowstone another $100,000, he said.
“All those things don’t quite get us there,” Wenk said. “The other thing that we’re going to do — which will have an impact on visitors in Yellowstone National Park, it will have an impact on local communities — is ... starting the plowing operation two weeks later this spring.”
Last year, during the first two weeks of Yellowstone’s summer season, an estimated 135,000 people entered through the gates of the world’s first national park.
During the same time frame, at the south entrance — accessed through Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway — 6,751 vehicles and 18,565 visitors passed into Yellowstone.
But the impact this spring will be smaller than closing the park earlier in the fall, Wenk said. Closing the last two weeks of the federal fiscal year, which ends Oct. 1, would cut off about 500,000 visitors.
The Park Service-owned plow fleet typically fires up the first Monday in March, but will now hold off until March 18, Wenk said.
“Two to three” seasonal plow truck drivers won’t be hired this spring because of the delay, he said.
Plowing costs Yellowstone about $30,000 a day, Wenk said, but because of snowpack changes, it’s difficult to project the expense for the entire season. In 2012 — a light snow year and warm spring — $1.14 million was spent plowing park roads plus the Beartooth Highway from the park’s northeast entrance, he said.
“Because of the energy of the sun, softer snow, more efficient plowing, five days of [not] plowing would save us over $150,000,” the superintendent said.
The consequences for drivers will be park gates opening later in the year. Bicyclists, hikers and cross-country skiers — if the snowpack permits — would potentially be allowed access during the two-week period, Wenk said.
Gates will open to vehicles on the west side of Yellowstone — through Mammoth, Gardiner and West Yellowstone — on April 26 instead of the usual April 19. The east and south sides of the park, accessed through Cody and Jackson Hole, will open May 24 instead of May 10. The northeast entrance, accessed via Beartooth Pass, is slated to open May 24.
Some leaders in Cody have suggested the Wyoming and Montana state transportation departments plow the Beartooth Highway as a stopgap measure.
“We hope that people will continue to come. We do want them to be able to have a route into the park,” said Scott Balyo, Cody Country Chamber of Commerce director.
Grand Teton National Park is not as far along as Yellowstone in firming up its plans to manage the sequester, park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.
“We don’t have all the nitty-gritty details,” Skaggs said. “We’re still making decisions and finalizing what we can do to live without $700,000.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.