National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Snow goes despite sequester’s blow

By Beverly Schlotterbeck

Photo by Jim Peaco
Rotary plows clear Hayden Valley Road in Yellowstone National Park April 3.

Alarm bells first went off for Scott Balyo after the Fiscal Cliff deal in late December. By mid-February at a governor’s conference on tourism he was trying to get a read on what would happen to the national parks if sequestration’s automatic spending cuts kicked in.  No one was entirely sure.

But about a week later, he received a phone call from Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk who told the Cody, Wyo. Chamber of Commerce executive that if there were no deal by March 1, the park would open late.  Facing a $1.8 million hit from the sequester to the park’s budget, Wenk had decided to save $250,000 by letting the sun do what NPS snowplows usually did this time of year, clear snow off the roads.

Snow can be as high as 10 feet in the passes leading into Yellowstone and clearing the roads involves heavy, industrial-sized equipment with rotary plows and blowers that shoot snow hundreds of feet in to the air.

Balyo immediately put the question to Wenk: If each of the gateway communities — there are five — could come up with $50,000, could something be worked out?  Eventually, the proposition morphed into a Cody and Park County, and Jackson Hole and Teton County solution.  If they could raise $100,000 to help with the plowing would the Park Service cooperate?

At stake were the May 3 opening of Yellowstone’s east gate and the May 10 opening of its south entrance — one in Park County and one in Teton County. Without plows to clear the roads, the openings would be pushed back two weeks.  Last year, 12,000 visitors entered the park at the east gate, during the first two weeks in May, pumping an estimated $2 million into the economy, Balyo said.

Park County Wyo. Board Chair Loren Grosskopf was in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) when he learned that Yellowstone would open weeks later than usual.  In town for NACo’s Legislative Conference, Grosskopf was taking advantage of time set aside for conference attendees to visit Capitol Hill and members of their congressional delegation.  “As soon as we heard about it, the chambers and mayors, set up a conference call with the [Wyoming] governor’s office, Grosskopf said.  The governor’s office suggested they talk to the park’s superintendent. The governor also said the state would not assume responsibility for plowing the roads.

While Wenk, the park superintendent, wouldn’t budge on his decision to let the roads go unplowed, he was open to hearing ideas about how the park might open on time.

A series of “fast and furious” phone calls went on during the first two weeks in March as Balyo and local leaders put together a “huge consortium at the table.” They arrived at a three-pronged solution:  the Park Service would allow outside entities to plow inside the park. “Something,” Balyo said, “that had never been allowed before.” The state, meanwhile, would provide the heavy snow removal equipment and crews, while the private side of the equation would provide the cash, $100,000.

 “We had two weeks to raise the money.”

The chamber said it would match dollar-for-dollar any contributions up to $50,000. Park County immediately kicked in $10,000. The city of Cody, $5,000. The fundraising began March 14, Balyo said. By the following Thursday, March 21, they had reached their goal.

On April 1 the plows started. 

Pulling everyone together was the only doubt Balyo had.  “I knew once a solution was in play, I was pretty confident we could raise the money.”

The really gratifying part, Grosskopf said, was the collaboration. “For the first time, the federal government — the Park Service — the state government, the city and county government and the chamber, the private sector, got together. Talk about a collaborative effort.”

 “We wanted to battle the negative PR that stories about sequestration were giving the national parks, especially those flagship parks like Yellowstone. People would see headlines about Yellowstone’s opening being delayed or threats of closing, and they might decide not to visit at all, no matter what season,” Balyo said.  And that would seriously impact the area’s economy. “Yellowstone Park has 3 million–4 million visitors a year. That’s a real kick-start to our economy,” Grosskopf said.

Photo by Dan Hottle
Flying the Wyoming state flag, and bearing a Visit Yellowstone banner, WYDOT crews  clear Yellowstone’s South Entrance Road April 8.

Seventeen days and one snowstorm later, on April 17, the state plows and the park plows met. The east entrance would open on time.

“The way it unfolded. I’m glad it happened. It turned out fine,” Grosskopf commented.

Wyoming’s governor thought so too. In a release announcing the meet up of the Park Service and state snowplows at the east entrance, Mead said: “When we thought the federal sequestration was going to shut the public out of Yellowstone and slow down tourism in our gateway communities, Wyoming came together and solved the problem.

“The two crews have had great support in Park and Teton counties. I thank them and everyone in Cody and Jackson who have rallied to make it possible for Wyoming to welcome the world to America’s first national park again this spring.”

Meanwhile at the south entrance gateway in Teton County the plowing continues, funded in large measure by upfront money from the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, which promised an up to $70,000 match to pay for plowing at the south entrance.