$700,000 from Grand Teton

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

National budget cuts will affect spring road openings in Yellowstone National Park this year, as well as its staffing numbers.

Directly related to sequestration – across-the-board budget cuts signed into law by President Obama March 1 – the $1.75 million cuts will take effect in the last half of the current fiscal year. This brings Yellowstone’s base operating budget down from the $35 million planned for FY 2013 to approximately $33.3 million.

“This is significant,” said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash. “We’re working to minimize the impacts, but they’re real.”

The park plans to implement this austerity through the following measures:

– $1 million from lapsing permanent positions

– Up to $500,000 by reducing the seasonal workforce, shortening length of employment for seasonal workers, and restricting travel and training

– $150,000 – $350,000 by delaying snowplowing operations and spring opening

“We really looked at what we [could] do in the remaining seven months of the fiscal year – ways we could minimize the impact of cuts to visitors, to all of our partners in the surrounding communities, to our park operations and the park staff,” Nash said.

Delayed spring plowing will have the most immediate effects on visitors and surrounding towns, as park roads will open a week or two later than normal. The park chose this option because it impacts fewer visitors than closures during summer or fall, according to a press release from YNP’s Public Affairs Office.

“Based on 2012 visitation figures, opening two weeks later than originally scheduled will impact approximately 135,000 visitors, compared to the 505,000 visitors who would be impacted if the park were closed the last two weeks of the fiscal year in mid-September through the end of October,” the release stated. Yellowstone hosted 3.45 million visitors in 2012.

Clearing snow from the park’s roads in spring is no small feat. Daily plowing costs up to $30,000, and allowing more snow to melt should reduce the number of days required to clear each road segment, as well as wear on equipment and fuel costs.

But the delayed openings will affect the economies of park gateway towns.

“This could alter opening dates for businesses, hiring dates for employees, and April tourism revenues for our community,” wrote Jan Stoddard, Marketing Director at the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, in an email. The west entrance will open to motor vehicles on April 26, a week later than normal.

Cody, Wyo. is also taking the cuts seriously. “The Park is Cody’s lifeblood,” Cody Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Scott Balyo told chamber members in an email on Feb. 28.

In Cody, 11,597 people, in 4,217 cars, traveled through the East Gate during the first two weeks of May last year.

According to a 2011 Park County Travel Council survey, visitors spent on average, $548.43 per day, per car, in Cody and Park County. That works out to an estimated $2,312,729 in local economic impact potentially lost.

“While the accuracy of that total can be debated, even 10 percent of that is over $200,000 in lost spending for the first two weeks, if people don’t come because the park isn’t accessible,” Balyo said.

At press time on March 5, Balyo was working on two possible solutions, both of which he said Supt. Wenk is willing to consider:

– Opening the Northeast Entrance via Cooke City by May 3, using crews from the Montana and Wyoming departments of transportation, as well as local county crews, to plow the 10-mile “plug” of snow on Sylvan Pass. Cody, Cooke City and Red Lodge were working together on this effort.

– Opening the East Gate by May 3 with assistance from local county plow crews and the WYDOT.

To the south, the Jackson, Wyo. Chamber of Commerce is to counter “potential negative news stories,” since sequestration will also cut $700,000 from operating costs for Grand Teton National Park.

“Assist us by avoiding rumors and by sharing information about the plentiful options offered to visitors and local residents by the community of Jackson Hole,” Jackson Chamber Director Jeff Golightly wrote in an email to members.

Grand Teton National Park is still “working on coming up with a definitive plan for how we will meet the shortfall,” park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.

GTNP also manages the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, which connects Yellowstone and GTNP. Together, they will see an 8 percent cut to their $12.5 million annual budget.

This park also plans to let some temporary positions lapse and hire fewer seasonal workers, but that won’t be enough, Skaggs said. Other possibilities include closing some visitors’ centers, restrooms and roads for the 2013 summer season.

“We still have to maintain park roads and pick up trash,” she said. “We haven’t got a definitive plan yet but we’re working on it. Obviously it will mean reduced services to the visiting public… Our number one concern is to make sure visitor and employee safety isn’t compromised. Close on the heels of that is maintaining protection of resources.”

Both parks already use a large volunteer team for operations and programming, but there are limits to the areas where they can be used, Skaggs said. “They can help us on some level but they’re not the answer.”

On a more positive note, the delayed opening will extend a unique activity available through the West Yellowstone west entrance called “Cycle Only Days,” Stoddard said.

This chance for road-accessed solitude in Yellowstone occurs once the Park Service opens the West Yellowstone-Madison Junction roads for bicyclists and hikers only.

The National Park Service will not furlough permanent full-time staff at Grand Teton or Yellowstone.

Nor will sequestration-related cuts affect funding or operations for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the concessionaire in Yellowstone National Park. Xanterra, which is funded largely by a concession franchise fee, was recently contracted in Yellowstone for the next 20 years – for more information, see page 23.

For specific road and facilities opening dates in Yellowstone National Park, visit nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/hours.htm.