March 11, 2013

Sequestration fallout: Yellowstone Park's delayed opening a win-lose

Conservatives who depend on Yellowstone to make a living question the plan's fairness.

By LISA REIN The Washington Post

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. — The giant snowplows that wake Yellowstone from its winter slumber every March are idled, waiting for the sun to make up for federal budget cuts that are forcing the park to open late for peak season.

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Bison graze in a meadow near Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park, Mont. Faced with an order from Washington to slice $1.8 million from his budget, park Superintendent Dan Wenk finds his decisions being second-guessed.

Erik Petersen/The Washington Post

click image to enlarge

A bighorn sheep munches on a blade of grass in Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont.

Erik Petersen/The Washington Post

Mandatory cuts kicked in three days before the plows were to clear snow and ice from 300 roads at altitudes that reach 11,000 feet. Faced with an order from Washington to slice $1.8 million from his budget, park Superintendent Dan Wenk had weighed his options.

He could slash the ranks of the 430 seasonal rangers, guides and other employees who help keep Yellowstone running every summer. But it would mean fewer visitor centers, walking tours and a risk to public safety.

He could halt the bison management program – but the program is required under a court settlement. He could close the park for two weeks before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, but that would mean shutting out 267,000 visitors.

Or he could keep the seasonals, just fewer of them, and bring them on two weeks later, saving $450,000. He could freeze all permanent hires ($1 million), delay the snowplows ($250,000) and open most entrances two weeks late. About 50,000 visitors would be lost, and hundreds of fishing and hiking guides, rangers and concession workers would lose their livelihoods.

But it seemed the best bad alternative. The sun would melt and soften the snow, saving $30,000 a day.

“We didn’t say we’re going to shut the park down” for the season, Wenk said. “But it will have real impacts.”


At parks, military bases and federal agencies across the country, managers such as Wenk are weighing choices being forced by the budget reductions known as sequestration.

“Everybody says, ‘We want you to run the park like a private business,’ ” he said, referring to the 5.1 percent cut he must make over seven months, which will feel a lot bigger. “Well, here it is. The impact is 9 percent.”

Early last Monday, he sat in regulation khakis in his office, five miles inside the park, 2,174 miles from Washington. He looked over a long list of calls and meetings on his schedule to make it official that plowing would not start on time.

He dialed Steve Bullock, Montana’s Democratic governor.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there that we are just doing this to make a statement about the effects of sequestration,” he told Bullock, walking him through his decision.

Bullock thanked him for the briefing. Then things got messy.

By midday, a news release had gone out, and the while-you-were-out slips were piling up. Tour guide Rusty Cole’s was at the top. “He’s mad as hell,” read the message.

“Rusty should call his congressman,” Wenk said.

And Cole did. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., returned his call that night.

“He said the delayed opening is not a done deal,” recounted Cole, who is furious that park officials are slashing two weeks from his 20-week season.

“They spend millions of dollars to operate Air Force One, and they can’t come up with some money to blow open the roads in Yellowstone?” Cole said.

But the sequestration law slices money across the government, including $136 million from the 398 national parks.

In 1872, the federal government saw to it that the spectacular landscape of 2.2 million acres, which is ringed by the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, was protected as America’s first national park. Today, Yellowstone Country is a deeply conservative place, where government is regarded with great suspicion.

Just ask Wyoming’s lone House member, Republican U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who applauded the $85 billion carved across the board in a Feb. 26 letter to constituents.

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