By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — The Internet has proven to be a popular way to crowdsource funding for everything from new tech gadgets to independent film projects, but could it also be a way to raise money to get snowplows moving so Yellowstone National Park will open on time?
That’s at least one idea being considered by local business leaders in the Wyoming gateway communities of Cody and Jackson.
The National Park Service announced earlier this month that snow plowing would be delayed in an effort to save money to meet across-the-board federal budget cuts dictated by Congress under the March 1 sequestration law. The move will push back spring opening dates by 2 weeks for the park’s east entrance from Cody and south entrance from Jackson.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk met Tuesday with Cody business leaders to discuss details of a tentative plan that could see private donors covering the cost of using Wyoming Department of Transportation workers and equipment to plow part of Yellowstone’s East Entrance road.
Though no final plan has been nailed down, Cody Country Chamber of Commerce leaders are seriously considering looking to members, businesses, local residents and even online donors from around the world to raise approximately $100,000 to help pay for the effort.
Cody Chamber Executive Director Scott Balyo is still waiting on final cost estimates before polling members about launching a fundraising campaign, but he said the idea has strong potential, and that an online fundraiser could attract Yellowstone fans as well as those who back a local bootstrapping effort.
“I think there is a lot of support for this general concept beyond the Cody community,” he said. “People might like a framework like this that provides a local solution to the federal government’s mishandling of the situation.”
City and county elected officials in Cody and Jackson have declined to provide public funds for plowing, saying they support the effort, but are wary of setting a precedent by covering what should be a federal responsibility.
Jackson Mayor Mark Barron said “too many unanswered questions” about how a cooperative plowing effort might work meant elected officials would not commit public money, and that he was “very disappointed” with a decision by Wenk to delay opening the park.
Gov. Matt Mead said the state would provide WYDOT resources if local communities covered the costs.
“This is a uniquely Wyoming solution that benefits the entire country because it gives the public the access to Yellowstone it has typically enjoyed,” Mead said in a statement released Tuesday.
He said that if communities are successful in covering plowing costs, the move will help the state’s tourism businesses hire workers on time, and it would help drive home the message that the park and the state are open for visitors as usual, despite the sequester.
Tourism is the number two industry in Wyoming, drawing nearly $3 billion in annual revenue, with much of that coming from visitors touring Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park. Balyo has said that a two-week delay in opening the East Gate could mean more than $2 million in lost tourism revenue for Cody.
Mead said that offering state funding for the plowing effort was not an option.
“If Wyoming begins the process of trying to backfill lost federal dollars at every turn, we will destroy our own budget and put an additional burden on Wyoming citizens, Wyoming taxpayers,” he said.
Balyo said that plowing costs would average approximately $5,000 per mile, with local efforts likely to cover approximately half the 28-mile distance between the East Gate and the park’s Lower Loop Road at Fishing Bridge.
Balyo said that Wenk told Cody business leaders Tuesday that Yellowstone plow crews should be able to cover the remaining half—an easier push through flatter terrain—and that the Park Service would commit to staffing the East Gate and reasonable maintenance of the road if additional snow fell after plowing.
If fundraising and plowing efforts are successful, Cody could see its East Gate open as initially planned by May 3, rather than May 17. The town is launching a new birding and wildlife festival set to begin May 15.
Jackson also faces a two-week delay in opening the South Gate. Barron said Tuesday that business leaders were exploring a similar private fundraising option, as well as investigating whether county lodging taxes could be used for plowing costs.
Balyo said the Chamber could be expected to commit at least $25,000 from an emergency reserve fund if members back the idea, and that he was optimistic about fundraising prospects.
“I’m confident that Cody as a community will step up and get this done,” he said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].