National Park Service Scrambling for Solutions to Yellowstone Access

By Beacon Staff

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Plow the Beartooth Highway. It’s one idea being floated to aid tourism in Cody during a delay in opening Yellowstone National Park to automobiles this spring.

The annual job of clearing snow from park roads was supposed to begin Monday. Because of federal budget cuts, park officials announced Monday, spring plowing won’t start until March 18. That means many of the park’s roads will open to automobiles one to two weeks later than usual this spring.

One stopgap measure suggested by Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, is for the Wyoming and Montana state transportation departments to plow the Beartooth Highway to allow tourists in Cody to get into Yellowstone through the park’s Northeast Entrance.

“We hope that people will continue to come. We do want them to be able to have a route into the park,” Balyo said Monday.

The National Park Service estimates that the park-wide plowing delay — and letting the sun of Mr. Springtime do a bigger share of clearing snow — will save the National Park Service $30,000 a day, or a total of anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000, depending on the weather.

The Park Service doesn’t deny that fewer people will visit Yellowstone this spring as a result: About 135,000 fewer compared to last year, according to its estimate.

But the harm to tourism won’t be as bad as if the park allowed its roads to close earlier than usual this fall. The price would be more than 500,000 fewer visitors if Yellowstone were closed over the last two weeks of the fiscal year ending Oct. 1, according to Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk.

“For us, we felt it would be more effective for us to take the cuts at the lowest visitation time of year,” Wenk said Monday.

For businesses in Cody, it’s cold comfort. Fifty miles west of town, opening day for Yellowstone’s East Entrance this year has been pushed back from May 3 to May 17.

Balyo’s idea to plow the highest, curviest, snowiest and typically last-to-open approach to Yellowstone to boost tourism isn’t as crazy as it might seem.

The Beartooth Highway squiggles across the Montana-Wyoming line and ends at Cooke City, Mont., just outside the park’s Northeast Entrance. The park road between Mammoth and the Northeast Entrance is one of only a few in Yellowstone that remain open to automobiles year-round.

Also, the Beartooth Highway happens to be one of the very few roads outside the National Park Service system that is maintained by the Park Service.

That includes plowing, which the Park Service often doesn’t get done until June. This year, the scheduled opening date — after the Park Service has finished plowing and opening all other park roads — is June 14.

But what if the Montana and Wyoming highway departments got on the job and opened up the Beartooth Highway a lot sooner, clearing a path from Cody to the Northeast Entrance by way of the Chief Joseph Highway?

Tourists could bypass the East Entrance and head for Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, where the roads are snow-free. The idea is OK with Wenk.

“If the state would like to revisit that, I’d be happy to have discussions with them this afternoon,” he said. “I would love for the state to take it over.”

The Park Service spent $316,000 plowing the Beartooth Highway in the spring of 2011 and $128,000 on the job last year, he said.

Bureaucracy, it turns out, is a bigger obstacle than deep mountain snow. The Interior Department saw to the Beartooth Highway’s construction in the 1930s under an obscure federal act under which few if any other roads serving national parks were built.

As a result, the Park Service for years has sought for Montana and Wyoming to assume responsibility for maintaining and plowing large sections of the road.

Wyoming’s cash-strapped Department of Transportation won’t hear of it. Same thing goes for any talk about plowing the road this year.

“It has been requested and we’re looking at it. But initially it doesn’t look doable,” WyDOT spokesman Dave Kingham said. “We can’t just spend money on a highway that’s not on our system, basically.”

That leaves Balyo and his chamber members looking to the weather. So far, this winter has been dry, adding to the risk that wildfires could close off areas to tourists this summer.

On the other hand, heavy snow over the next month or two could make getting Yellowstone open all that more difficult.

“If we can find that perfect balance between getting enough moisture and runoff while not affecting our gate openings,” Balyo said. “Somewhere that balance exists.”

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