By Ruffin Prevost
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Several tons of heavy equipment rumbled to life at the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park on Monday, as workers began what is expected to be a month-long effort to remove snow on the road between the park’s eastern boundary and Fishing Bridge.
Road workers rarely begin their day to a round of applause like that heard on Monday, but they also typically aren’t driving rigs sporting promotional banners and flags positioned in easy view of a group of waiting reporters and local officials.
Federal budget cuts mandated by the Congressional cost-cutting deal known as the sequester have put National Park Service plows on a delayed schedule, so the big iron now moving into Yellowstone from Cody, Wyo. is being funded by local business owners and public entities.
With more than $100,000 in local money backing the operation, tourism and business leaders aren’t shy about sharing the story of how their small town has chipped in to help get Yellowstone’s roads open on time. Plows were decked out with flags from the state of Wyoming and city of Cody, as well as a large Wyoming Travel and Tourism banner that read “Yellowstone or Bust.”
“I don’t think we could afford to buy this kind of publicity,” said Cody Mayor Nancy Brown, who stood just inside Yellowstone’s East Gate with a group of about 20 others who were there to watch as Wyoming Department of Transportation workers began their efforts.
Following an earlier donation of $10,000 from the Park County Commissioners, the Cody City Council has approved spending $5,000 in public funds on the grassroots plowing effort, which has made headlines amidst the national debate on the effects of budget cuts under the sequester.
Park officials decided to delay snow plowing in an effort to save up to $250,000 out of a total of $1.75 million in cuts required, a move that would have delayed opening the East Gate by two weeks.
Cody Country Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Scott Balyo said he was pleased that the community had rallied to raise local money to cover the cost for state equipment and workers who will pick up the slack and make sure the East Gate opens by May 3, as originally scheduled.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said he applauded the “amazing” effort from Cody to field an “experienced crew with appropriate equipment” that will work doing a “dangerous job.”
Workers from WYDOT’s Cody and Lovell offices got an avalanche briefing Monday before they began pushing toward 8,524-foot Sylvan Pass, where conditions may require crews to use a howitzer cannon later this month to clear snow from hillsides to ensure safe plowing, Nash said.
While the road is unfamiliar and the risk of avalanche is unusual for them, WYDOT crews regularly work on similar spring plowing jobs, said Jim Thomas, a Lovell, Wyo. foreman who plows Highway 14A through 9,430-foot Burgess Junction in the Bighorn Mountains.
Thomas and other workers said they were proud to get the chance to open the East Entrance Road, and they pledged to work hard to give donors their money’s worth.
WYDOT spokesman Cody Beers said about 10 employees would be part of the plowing crew that will work their way in from the East Gate, which is where Park Service crews typically finish their spring plowing efforts on the East Entrance Road each year.
Nash said it was difficult to predict how far Wyoming crews will get, or where they might meet up with Park Service teams, but the idea is for WYDOT workers to go as far as possible toward Fishing Bridge.
Warm, dry weather could make that easier, but spring is an unpredictable time in Yellowstone, he said.
“We’ll see what mother nature permits,” Nash said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].