States mull plow plan to open park on time
By Rebecca Walsh, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
March 8, 2013
The dates for the proposed openings of Yellowstone have been corrected in this story — Ed.
While state engineers estimate the cost of plowing Yellowstone National Park roads to open the park on schedule, federal managers were mum about the plan to avoid impacts of the federal sequester.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, along with state lawmakers and business leaders in Jackson and Cody, has been spearheading an end-run around the sequester. The cuts to the federal budget have idled Yellowstone plows and could delay the park’s spring opening for two weeks.
Gateway communities and neighboring states are considering plowing the roads themselves with the understanding that Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk would allow it, Cody Chamber of Commerce Director Scott Balyo said Thursday. The deal assumes the federal government would not be on the hook for the costs or liability, he said.
“It’s complicated” Balyo said. “There’s a lot of moving parts.
“But if a partnership can be found — through local fundraising, passing the hat, state money or emergency funds — we’re working toward that.”
Park spokesmen Thursday, however, could not confirm that Wenk has given the go-ahead.
“The superintendent has had discussions with neighboring communities and with the respective governors’ offices,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said. As for reports that the superintendent has signed off in theory on providing local and state governments unprecedented wintertime access to the park, Nash said, “I don’t know about that.”
Yellowstone spokesman Dan Hottle could not explain whether there were any legal obstacles that might block the plan.
Meantime, state transportation managers are working on estimates to determine if the plan is feasible. Plowing Yellowstone is not simply the work of a few trucks with detachable blades, Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesman Dave Kingham said.
The cost for clearing snow-packed roads ranges from $3,500 to $7,000 per mile, Kingham said, using information gained from three mountain passes the state closes each winter. Two years ago, however, clearing the Snowy Range Road or Highway 130 between Centennial and Saratoga cost $30,000 a mile. Crews used rotary plows, backhoes, front-end loaders, regular plow trucks and a Snowcat.
“It’s highly variable,” Kingham said. Yellowstone road managers would have to recommend the number and types of machines the state should send, he said.
“We’re not that familiar with the conditions up there.”
Last year, a light snow year, Nash said Yellowstone spent $962,000 plowing roads inside the park and another $178,000 to clear the Beartooth Highway. In 2011, a heavy snow year, clearing the roads cost the park $1.2 million inside the park and another $316,000 at the northeast entrance.
Business leaders were the first to complain about the delay from the scheduled opening — May 10 at the south entrance from Jackson Hole. The sequester pushed that back to May 24.
Gov. Mead and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock spoke Wednesday on the phone about the plowing plan, Mead spokesman Renny Mackay said. A two-pronged approach — one from north of the park through Cooke City, Mont., or west from Cody, and another from the south, through Jackson Hole — is under discussion.
The first two weeks of the tourist season — when 49,000 people visit Yellowstone — “are critical,” Cody’s Balyo said. “It has a ripple effect.
“If people cancel their travel for the first two weeks, they may not reschedule,” he said.
The plan also might require some sacrifice from neighbors. Moving a rotary plow away from Jackson, Afton or Dubois might become problematic if there are late-season storms, WYDOT’s Kingham said.
All of that will have to be considered when transportation engineers submit their report to the governor and other stakeholders, Balyo said.
“The question is: What are the costs, are the resources available and is the effort worth it?” he said.