By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — Two small Wyoming tourist towns at the edge of Yellowstone National Park are celebrating successful fundraising efforts to cover the cost of plowing part of the roads leading into the park, assuring an on-time opening for their gates this spring.
The chambers of commerce in Cody and Jackson have confirmed that they have raised enough money to move forward with a plan to pay for Wyoming Department of Transportation personnel and equipment to assist in snow removal inside Yellowstone’s east and south gates.
Calling Cody “the little town that could—and did,” Chamber of Commerce executive director Scott Balyo said he was pleased that the campaign would ensure that Yellowstone’s East Gate would open May 3 as originally scheduled. Without private funding, the gate had faced a delayed opening of May 17.
Yellowstone managers had announced earlier this month that the park’s spring opening would be delayed by 1-2 weeks across various gates as snow plowing would be scaled back to save money under budget cuts resulting from the Congressional sequester.
Tourism industry business leaders in Cody and Jackson negotiated an unprecedented deal with Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead to allow for local funds to cover the costs of a state effort to help plow a large portion of the two entrance roads.
The complex and costly job of removing snow from more than 300 miles of paved road in the park can cost up to $1.5 million per year, depending on snow levels. Work typically starts the first full week of March, but Wenk opted to delay plowing to save $250,000 toward a total of $1.75 million in cuts required under the sequester.
Yellowstone spokesman Dan Hottle said in an email Friday that the local fundraising campaigns were “a tremendous achievement and perfect example of what can be accomplished through perseverance, partnership and our gateway communities’ thorough understanding of Yellowstone National Park’s significance to the rest of America.”
“We expect their efforts will help us reach the East and South Entrances on our original plowing schedule so that these gates may open to the public on time,” Hottle said.
Wide range of donations
Cody raised $100,000, with donations ranging from $10 to $10,000, Balyo said. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center gave $10,000, as did Park County Commissioners, who cited the opening weeks as a favorite time for local residents to visit the park.
Balyo said the Cody Chamber put up $50,000 from a reserve account, and that fundraising would continue. Any overage would be used to repay chamber reserves or would be returned on a pro-rated basis to those donors who had asked for rebates.
The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce raised $70,600, said executive director Jeff Golightly. The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board paid $56,000 of that total, while the chamber put up $14,600.
Unlike Cody, Jackson’s tourism board used funds collected under a 2 percent lodging tax to cover plowing costs. Such funds are typically expected to be used for tourism promotion, and Golightly said he thought the situation qualified.
“I think there’s no question that a closed gate would have reduced tourism, therefore an open gate promotes tourism,” Golightly said.
The South Gate should open on May 10 as originally scheduled, rather than two weeks later if private plowing funds were not available, he said.
Both chamber heads cited the positive public relations value gained from the two towns each accomplishing what the federal government could not in opening the roads on time.
“I can’t think of a better illustration of the independent, determined spirit that embodies this town of 10,000 people,” Balyo said.
More than 11,000 visitors passed through the East Gate last year during the first two weeks of the season, spending an estimated $2 million, Balyo said.
Local sentiment on the issue ranged from enthusiasm to resentment at seeing local money used to cover a federal shortfall.
City officials in Cody and Jackson have cited concerns about setting a funding precedent, and thus far have not contributed public funds. Mead has said the state could not afford to start covering all the funding gaps realized under the sequester, and declined to put up state funds.
Both chambers are still accepting donations, including online contributions at their respective websites.
Less interest in Montana
In Montana, there appears to be less interest in funding a private plowing effort, said West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce marketing director Jan Stoddard.
Under the delayed plowing schedule, roads from West Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful will open April 26, one week later than originally scheduled.
Stoddard said that most of the snow along the West Gate entrance road typically melted naturally by each spring opening date, and that the effects in West Yellowstone of a one-week delay in opening were likely to be less than in Cody.
An eight-mile section of road between Cooke City, Mont. and the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway in Park County, Wyo. will open May 24. The Beartooth Highway between Cooke City and Red Lodge, Mont. is expected to open by June 14.
In a statement released earlier this month, a spokesman for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock looked to the National Park Service for a solution to the delay in plowing, saying that the park “has been trying to get out of maintaining the federal highway since 1982.”
“We’ll continue to be in touch with Park management as they work through this problem, but we hope they find a solution that allows them to plow the highway in a timely fashion,” said Kevin O’Brien, Bullock’s deputy chief of staff. “Doing so would be good for tourists, good for Yellowstone and good for the communities surrounding and supporting it.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].