By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — Being among the first to enter Yellowstone National Park each spring is a badge of pride worn by many die-hard locals as well as thousands of visitors from across the country. But the park’s early birds will have to wait a week or two longer this year, thanks to across-the-board federal spending cuts that took effect Friday.
Staggered opening dates for Yellowstone’s five entrances will be delayed, as the costly and complex road-clearing operations that normally begin in early March will wait until more snow has melted before starting.
Superintendent Dan Wenk is expected to formally announce the delays Monday in a conference call with reporters. But in a conversation earlier this week with gateway community business leaders, Wenk detailed how federally mandated spending cuts will effect Yellowstone.
The park’s north and west entrances will open April 26, one week behind schedule, according to Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, who was among those included in the call with Wenk. The east, south and northeast entrances will all open two weeks later than scheduled, with the east entrance opening May 17 and the south and northeast entrances opening May 24.
In an effort to attract early Yellowstone visitors, especially bird-watchers, the Cody Chamber had announced earlier this year the launch of Spring Into Yellowstone, a new birding and wildlife festival that will include guided trips, interactive forums and a trade show May 15-19. It was not yet immediately clear how the late opening might affect that event.
The annual plowing effort costs up to $1 million, burning through $10,000 per day in diesel fuel. Up to 25 mostly seasonal, temporary employees work to clear snow from more than 300 miles of paved roads at altitudes ranging from 6,500 feet to nearly 11,000 feet.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash on Friday confirmed that the park would delay plowing operations that had been set to begin Monday.
“We really do have very few places that we can go” to cut costs, Nash said. “Our workforce is made up of a lot of seasonal employees, so that’s certainly a major area where we can make changes.”
The delayed opening has not gone over well with local tourism industry leaders, who are searching for outside funding to cover plowing costs and honor the spring opening dates that many families have already planned their vacations around.
One priority for Wyoming leaders may be plowing an 8-mile section of highway between Pilot Creek in Park County, Wyo. and Cooke City, Montana. Clearing that road would offer an alternate early route into the park for visitors on the east side of the park.
A two-week delay in Yellowstone’s opening means Cody will miss out on more than 150,000 visitors spending an estimated $2.3 million, according to figures released by the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. Similar shortfalls in four other gateway towns around the park could easily put total losses at over $10 million.
If cuts in national park budgets continue to make headlines into the summer, families could decide to vacation elsewhere, meaning additional millions lost in local tax collections for gas, food, lodging and merchandise.
“They could end up losing more in taxes over the season than what they saved with budget cuts,” said Mike Darby, whose family owns the Irma Hotel in Cody. “It’s ridiculous.”
Wenk told Darby and other business leaders that each National Park Service unit is expected to trim 5 percent from its annual budget, with only seven months left in the federal fiscal year.
That means shaving $1.75 million from Yellowstone’s $35 million annual budget.
Approximately $250,000 will be saved from delaying snow-plowing, with another $1 million in savings realized by not hiring replacements for some departing permanent workers. Wenk expects to save another $500,000 by reducing the seasonal workforce and through travel and training reductions.
Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park are major economic drivers for the region. The two parks generated a combined total of $766 million in tourism spending in 2011, supporting 11,438 jobs, according to a Michigan State University analysis released last month.
Tourism leaders in Jackson, Wyo. are are pushing to get the word out that the parks and surrounding areas will be open for business this summer, despite the cuts.
But mandated cuts in Grand Teton National Park mean visitor centers at Flagg Ranch, Jenny Lake and the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve in Grand Teton will not open at all this summer, said park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.
Hours will likely be reduced for visitor centers at Moose and Colter Bay, Skaggs said, and seasonal worker payrolls will be trimmed.
Because many maintenance workers and other seasonal employees also serve as on-call firefighters, paramedics or search-and-rescue workers, budget cuts will mean fewer emergency responders in the park this summer.
“We will do our best not to allow those reductions to impact the safety of our visitors and employees,” Skaggs said. “But the reality is our response capabilities will be reduced.”
With families planning Yellowstone and Grand Teton visits months in advance, any disruption in scheduled openings or services can send long-lasting ripples through local tourism economies.
Darby said he understood the need to tame federal budget deficits and reduce the national debt, but that the way the cuts mandated by Congress were being carried out appeared counter-productive.
“Somebody needs to refigure this,” he said, “or we need to get better advocates.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].