By Ruffin Prevost
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYO. — Old Faithful Geyser wasn’t the only thing in Yellowstone National Park operating according to a predictable schedule Friday, as the park’s South Entrance from Jackson, Wyo. opened for the season on time, despite a previous threat of delay due to federal budget cuts.
Last week, the East Entrance from Cody, Wyo. opened on schedule as well, after tourism leaders and public officials in both communities led fund-raising campaigns to help cover the cost of snow removal along roads into the park.
So Old Faithful was perhaps a fitting location, as dozens of state, local and federal dignitaries gathered to mark the end of National Travel and Tourism Week, as well as the opening of all major roads within Yellowstone. Only Dunraven Pass, between Canyon and Tower, remains closed, and it is typically the last point in the park to be plowed.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead joined Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk and others for a luncheon to celebrate a cooperative snow-plowing effort that reversed what would have been the most visible effect of federal budget cuts in Yellowstone.
Mead approved a plan in March that allowed roughly $125,000 in mostly private money to pay for Wyoming Department of Transportation plows and workers to clear portions of the east entrance road from Cody and the south entrance road from Jackson. Public lodging tax funds from Jackson and general fund dollars from Cody and Park County also helped pay for the effort.
Wenk said that most July and August visitors won’t know or necessarily care that roads were plowed on time in May, but the local funding helped the park open on time without requiring other “ripple-effect” cuts. He called the local funding for plowing “a great gift to the American public.”
Mead said that local leaders “should be very proud of what your communities have done in coming together,” and called the effort “a great Wyoming success story.”
Local leaders feared that a late start to the summer tourist season would result in lingering misperceptions nationwide that the parks were either closed or operating on a limited basis.
But quick action by tourism boosters and public officials helped spread the word about the local plowing effort, supplemented by online fundraising and a strong public relations campaign.
The effort seems to be working, with vacation planners getting the message that both parks are open for business as usual with only minimal cuts in services, said said Rick Hoeninghausen, vice president for sales and marketing at Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park’s primary lodging and activities concessioner.
So far, advance bookings for Yellowstone are up over last year, he said.
Mead and others who spoke Friday noted that both parks are important to local residents and visitors for reasons that go beyond dollars and cents.
“Besides the economic end of it, there are also the people who plan their vacations around those dates,” said Jerry Fritz, a Cody City Council member who is also a Wyoming Department of Transportation worker who helped plow roads in Yellowstone.
The across-the-board spending cuts required under the sequester has meant reductions in services in other national parks across the country, including at neighboring Grand Teton National Park. An effort there to trim $700,000 from the last half of the fiscal year’s operating budget will mean closed campsites, toilets and other facilities, as well as reduced hours at visitor centers.
But as in Yellowstone, local groups have stepped in to help. Private charities and Grand Teton friends groups have allocated grant money to help fund operations at visitor centers there.
Fritz said the plowing went a little easier than expected, and Wyoming crews finished work ahead of schedule and under budget. A final accounting from WYDOT is expected sometime next week, said Jackson Mayor Mark Barron.
“There were so many people who contributed to this cooperative and successful effort,” said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash. “That shouldn’t be so remarkable, but in this case, it is.”
A few in attendance noted that the luncheon was an elaborate exercise to celebrate what should be a routine function of government, with the most pointed criticism reserved for Congress, which failed to resolve the deadlock over the sequester.
Mead said the Washington, D.C. approach to such issues was one of placing blame, rather than resolving problems.
“But this ain’t D.C.,” he said with a broad smile before signing a proclamation supporting National Travel and Tourism Week. “This is Wyoming.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected]