By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — Citing concerns about legal liability and creating an ongoing obligation to make up for lost federal dollars, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said Thursday that state and local officials are still reviewing options on whether and how to help plow roads into Yellowstone National Park.
The National Park Service announced earlier this week that snow plowing would be delayed in an effort to save money to meet across-the-board federal budget cuts required by Congress under a so-called sequestration plan that took effect March 1. The move will push back Yellowstone’s spring opening dates by 1-2 weeks at the various park entrances.
Mead said he has been speaking with park managers, gateway community elected officials and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to explore possibilities for maintaining the park’s previously announced opening schedule. That could mean helping to fund park plowing operations or providing labor and equipment, but no decision has been made.
“I have a sense of urgency that we need to be able to make a decision as soon as we can,” Mead said during a press conference that addressed the federal cuts and other topics.
Tourism is Wyoming’s second largest industry, generating nearly $3 billion in annual spending that supports 30,000 jobs statewide. A two-week delay in opening Yellowstone could mean a loss of $10 million or more to small, rural communities around the park.
Mead said he expects to see a plowing operations schedule today from Yellowstone mangers, and that he would reach out again to mayors in Cody and Jackson.
“Hopefully, we can reach some sort of solution today or tomorrow,” Mead said, but he cautioned that the problem is complex and not one that can be unilaterally addressed.
With millions of dollars in tourism revenues at stake, gateway communities in Montana and Wyoming are scrambling to maintain the park’s opening schedule. Mead said that “time is of the essence” because plowing operations had been scheduled to start Monday. Additional delays will complicate making up for lost time, as well as finding people and equipment to do the job, he said.
Mead said the plowing issue brought up the question of whether states should be expected to make up for other mandated federal funding cuts in a wide range of other areas, including education, health care and transportation.
“How much should the state step in to alleviate the mistakes of Congress and the administration?” he said.
Mead also said he didn’t have a clear picture of the state’s legal liability if plowing equipment is damaged or workers are injured on the job.
Park managers have said they are waiting for warmer weather to help make the complex and costly operation easier, with costs for diesel fuel alone topping $10,000 per day.
Plowing the more than 300 miles of paved roads in the park costs up to $1.5 million annually, depending on snow levels. Superintendent Dan Wenk said Monday that he hopes to save about $250,000 by delaying plowing.
Managers in Grand Teton National Park have said they will not open three popular visitor centers at all this summer. Leaving facilities shuttered at Flagg Ranch, Jenny Lake and the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve is meant to help meet a goal under sequestration of trimming 5 percent from Grand Teton’s annual budget.
Mead said he had not spoken to Grand Teton managers about the visitor center closures, but that he had confidence in state tourism officials “and the people in the parks to do the best they can to provide a wonderful tourism experience for our visitors.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].