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Sylvan Pass pricey to open
Wyo. congressional delegation says winter access into Yellowstone important for Cody.
By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: March 9, 2011
Wyoming’s congressional delegation reiterated its support for winter access through Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance this week despite federal budget woes, the high cost of avalanche control on Sylvan Pass and the relatively low number of visitors.
Park officials say 446 recreational visitors — compared with 463 visitors last year — entered Yellowstone through the East Entrance during the 68-day winter season (Dec. 22 through March 1), for an average of roughly 6.6 visitors per day. Park officials estimate avalanche control on Sylvan Pass costs about $325,000 a year or $4,779.41 a day or $728.70 per person. Park Service officials couldn’t say whether the $325,000 included the cost of grooming the road.
Roughly 170 visitors entered the park on 117 snow machines, up from 80 visitors on 59 snow machines last year. No operators offered snow coach rides through the East Entrance this year.
“We offered a prospectus, and nobody submitted a proposal to operate,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said.
The news comes after Yellowstone officials tried to end winter travel through the East Entrance in 2007, citing not only cost but also risk to the park employees who conduct avalanche control work.
Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, as well as Rep. Cynthia Lummis, all R-Wyo., said the access to the park is good for Cody’s economy.
“Wyoming small businesses and communities depend on winter use activities in Yellowstone,” Sen. Barrasso said in a statement.
“Keeping access open through the East Entrance is essential. The Park Service should make it a priority to ensure the public has access to the park.”
Sen. Barrasso said Wyoming has contributed resources to keep Sylvan Pass open.
Rep. Lummis said keeping the East Entrance open during the winter months makes sense, even though the federal government is strapped for cash.
“No one is more concerned about curbing federal spending than I am,” she said. “We should always look for more efficient ways to manage access to our parks.”
Rep. Lummis said groups that want to close the East Entrance aren’t concerned about cost.
“For those groups whose sole purpose is the politically motivated limitation of access to our nation’s first national park, cost is simply the excuse du jour,” she said in a statement. “These groups either do not realize, or do not care that the real costs are on the working families and local businesses that rely on open access to Sylvan Pass for their livelihoods.”
Sen. Enzi’s office said the low visitation through the East Entrance is due to uncertainty about winter use in the park.
“Over the years, the Park Service has tried to justify closing off Yellowstone,” said Elly Pickett, Sen. Enzi’s press secretary, in a statement. “A systematic dismantling of winter use in Yellowstone and the uncertainty that goes with it causes fewer visitors, which in turn the Park Service uses to justify further restrictions.”
Enzi: Numbers can go up
“Visitor numbers can go back up with a more stable park policy,” Pickett continued. “Certainty in park policy is the answer to this problem, not money. Keeping the park open for business is what the Park Service should be in the business of doing.”
Pickett pointed to the winter of 2001-2002, when more than 6,000 visitors used the East Entrance, as evidence that a consistent operating policy in the park can encourage people to take advantage of the opportunity.
Some conservation groups say the cost isn’t worth the benefit.
“It defies my imagination that it costs so much to keep that pass open for so few people,” said Bill Wade, a spokesman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “There’s got to be better ways to spend that money.”
The fact that nobody wanted the snow coach concession this year “tells you something about what the market thinks is the prospect for it being profitable.”
Mark Pearson, national parks program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, agreed the price is too much.
“It’s a head scratcher how you can justify spending $300,000 for a few hundred visitors in an area of shrinking budgets,” he said.
Wade and Pearson also pointed to the use of howitzers to conduct avalanche control as another reason winter travel over Sylvan Pass is bad for the park.
“Is launching howitzer shells all winter long the best use of ranger time and effort and the most appropriate management of the world’s first national park?” Pearson said.
“Any time you go up on any of these mountain passes it seems like you see the warning signs ‘Be on the lookout for unexploded ordinance,’” Pearson continued. “Is that what you expect to see in a national park, warnings about unexploded ordinance?”
The Yellowstone National Park website lists one snowmobile concessionaire for the East Entrance.
In 2007, Park Service officials suggested closing the pass during the winter in an environmental document, saying it is too dangerous and costly to maintain due to 20, 45-degree avalanche paths, 600 feet high, that cross a one-mile section of the road. In the past, park rangers dropped bombs from a helicopter to induce avalanches in the area, in addition to using the howitzer.
Park Service documents estimate a seven-person crew is required to keep the pass open, during which time they must cross four active avalanche paths to gain access to the howitzer, facing “extreme and unavoidable danger.”
The one wintertime death on the pass happened in 1994 when park ranger Robert E. Mahn drove his snowmobile off the side of the road in whiteout conditions while on patrol.
Park Service officials estimate that there are more than 300 unexploded bombs on the side of the mountain in the Sylvan Pass area, presenting a hazard to crews who might need to remove debris from a rock slide during the summer months.
Another option for avalanche control, a snow shed, would involve erecting a concrete tunnel one mile in length at a cost of $172 million.
In 2007, responding to outcries from Cody residents and Wyoming politicians, the National Park Service regional office hired a facilitator to bridge the gap between those who wanted to close Sylvan Pass to winter use and those who said it should remain open.
The Park Service eventually struck a deal with Cody residents and Wyoming politicians in closed-door negotiations.