Federal budget cuts delay Yellowstone opening, close Grand Teton visitor centers


Federal budget cuts will delay the spring opening of Yellowstone National Park and close visitor centers in Grand Teton National Park. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate file photo)

By Ruffin Prevost

CODY, WYO. — Being among the first to enter Yellowstone National Park each spring is a badge of pride worn by many die-hard locals as well as thousands of visitors from across the country. But the park’s early birds will have to wait a week or two longer this year, thanks to across-the-board federal spending cuts that took effect Friday.

Staggered opening dates for Yellowstone’s five entrances will be delayed, as the costly and complex road-clearing operations that normally begin in early March will wait until more snow has melted before starting.

Superintendent Dan Wenk is expected to formally announce the delays Monday in a conference call with reporters. But in a conversation earlier this week with gateway community business leaders, Wenk detailed how federally mandated spending cuts will effect Yellowstone.

The park’s north and west entrances will open April 26, one week behind schedule, according to Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, who was among those included in the call with Wenk. The east, south and northeast entrances will all open two weeks later than scheduled, with the east entrance opening May 17 and the south and northeast entrances opening May 24.

In an effort to attract early Yellowstone visitors, especially bird-watchers, the Cody Chamber had announced earlier this year the launch of Spring Into Yellowstone, a new birding and wildlife festival that will include guided trips, interactive forums and a trade show May 15-19. It was not yet immediately clear how the late opening might affect that event.

The annual plowing effort costs up to $1 million, burning through $10,000 per day in diesel fuel. Up to 25 mostly seasonal, temporary employees work to clear snow from more than 300 miles of paved roads at altitudes ranging from 6,500 feet to nearly 11,000 feet.

Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash on Friday confirmed that the park would delay plowing operations that had been set to begin Monday.

“We really do have very few places that we can go” to cut costs, Nash said. “Our workforce is made up of a lot of seasonal employees, so that’s certainly a major area where we can make changes.”

The delayed opening has not gone over well with local tourism industry leaders, who are searching for outside funding to cover plowing costs and honor the spring opening dates that many families have already planned their vacations around.

One priority for Wyoming leaders may be plowing an 8-mile section of highway between Pilot Creek in Park County, Wyo. and Cooke City, Montana. Clearing that road would offer an alternate early route into the park for visitors on the east side of the park.

A two-week delay in Yellowstone’s opening means Cody will miss out on more than 150,000 visitors spending an estimated $2.3 million, according to figures released by the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. Similar shortfalls in four other gateway towns around the park could easily put total losses at over $10 million.

If cuts in national park budgets continue to make headlines into the summer, families could decide to vacation elsewhere, meaning additional millions lost in local tax collections for gas, food, lodging and merchandise.

“They could end up losing more in taxes over the season than what they saved with budget cuts,” said Mike Darby, whose family owns the Irma Hotel in Cody. “It’s ridiculous.”

Wenk told Darby and other business leaders that each National Park Service unit is expected to trim 5 percent from its annual budget, with only seven months left in the federal fiscal year.

That means shaving $1.75 million from Yellowstone’s $35 million annual budget.

Approximately $250,000 will be saved from delaying snow-plowing, with another $1 million in savings realized by not hiring replacements for some departing permanent workers. Wenk expects to save another $500,000 by reducing the seasonal workforce and through travel and training reductions.


Economic drivers

Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park are major economic drivers for the region. The two parks generated a combined total of $766 million in tourism spending in 2011, supporting 11,438 jobs, according to a Michigan State University analysis released last month.

Tourism leaders in Jackson, Wyo. are are pushing to get the word out that the parks and surrounding areas will be open for business this summer, despite the cuts.

But mandated cuts in Grand Teton National Park mean visitor centers at Flagg Ranch, Jenny Lake and the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve in Grand Teton will not open at all this summer, said park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.

Hours will likely be reduced for visitor centers at Moose and Colter Bay, Skaggs said, and seasonal worker payrolls will be trimmed.

Because many maintenance workers and other seasonal employees also serve as on-call firefighters, paramedics or search-and-rescue workers, budget cuts will mean fewer emergency responders in the park this summer.

“We will do our best not to allow those reductions to impact the safety of our visitors and employees,” Skaggs said. “But the reality is our response capabilities will be reduced.”

With families planning Yellowstone and Grand Teton visits months in advance, any disruption in scheduled openings or services can send long-lasting ripples through local tourism economies.

Darby said he understood the need to tame federal budget deficits and reduce the national debt, but that the way the cuts mandated by Congress were being carried out appeared counter-productive.

“Somebody needs to refigure this,” he said, “or we need to get better advocates.”

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].

10 thoughts on “Federal budget cuts delay Yellowstone opening, close Grand Teton visitor centers

    • The Facebook page you reference is not managed by the National Park Service. It says “Yellowstone National Park,” but it’s a private page. The Park Service Facebook page is at: https://www.facebook.com/YellowstoneNPS.

      Still, the dates on the website do contradict what the superintendent was telling gateway communities last week. But also, the sequester took effect Friday.


  1. If some folks decide to go somewhere else besides Yellowstone, then some other community will benefit from their tourist dollars. And those tourist dollars are likely to stay in the U.S. as those same tourist will not want to pay a kings ransom to travel abroad. Can you imagine Disney saying “Gee, revenues are down at our Parks, lets see if we can drive more of our customers away”

    The sky is not falling because these Government Agencies have to trim 5%. Most households have been doing that for years now!

  2. We welcome anyone who want to come to Glacier National Park, We are even getting New Buses and they will still be free to ride.

  3. None of the sequestration news stories define the truth about funding problems in national parks, certainly not in Grand Teton National Park.

    Grand Teton National Park may need to cut operating expenses by a reported
    $627,000.00, which is 5% of their operating budget of $12,500,000. Rather
    than looking inward to cut expenses, become efficient and manage effectively,
    the park is planning to cut services to the visitor, even though it is those
    visitors who pay the taxes to maintain the park, pay the entrance and use
    fees that support the park and own the park.

    In addition to the tax-payer funded operating budget of over twelve million
    dollars Grand Teton National Park receives millions and millions of dollars
    each year from tax-payer-supported non-profits, while, at the same time,
    squandering hundreds of millions of hard-earned tax-payer dollars on
    developing and overbuilding, paving over natural resources and severe
    overstaffing which is now double what it was only a few years ago. The Park
    is effectively closed from November through May. They no longer operate
    campgrounds and most summer visitor services are staffed by volunteers, yet
    they can’t live within their own annual budgets. The Park’s building and
    developing tab has exceeded over 100 million dollars in the last couple of
    years and turned the Moose residential area into three-story urban sprawl at
    the reckless cost of $339.00 per square foot which is two and one half times
    the cost found in the private sector.

    Grand Teton National Park’s pompous management is self serving, blatantly
    indifferent to their employers and deaf to responsibility. Over two-thirds of
    the potential sequestration cut of $627,000 could be solved with an easy fix:
    the resignation of Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott, who has been politically
    promoted so many times she is above all national park pay scales and the
    highest paid Grand Teton National Park Superintendent of all time.

    • Thanks Tim, you are correct in that some parks seem to be on a development binge. However, do you know what visitor surveys consistently say folks want? Cell service, nicer restaurants, more restrooms, and more paved roads. They expect all of their needs to be met. Now, of course those are silly expectations, but if you want to capture more of those precious $25 entry fees you have to meet visitors somewhere in the middle. It’s an unfortunate catch-22 that all parks deal with. In other words, one person’s idea of waste is another’s idea of giving the public what they want.

      • Please know that all the financial numbers I described above have nothing to do with visitor services…the administration overseeing Grand Teton National Park is building themselves new housing, new administrative buildings, new maintenance buildings, buying millions of dollars of new large and small equipment, have fleets of vehicles which are so overwhelming that they park them in campgrounds during the winter and in a hidden sunken hole with the explosives, and last but certainly not least their staffing is out of control. Grand Stetson National Park does not have just a spokesperson it has an entire staffed department for communicating which is infamous for biased and many times reckless spin.

  4. I believe a more reasonable and less reactionary appraisal of the sequester’s cuts to Yellowstone appears when you look at the Congressional funding of Yellowstone and especially Yellowstone going back to the 70’s. Congress has starved the Park budgets for decades, resulting in deferred maintenance and having no reserves for emerencies beyond the rare earmark ( such as what recently built Old Faithful Visitor Center ). Truth be told, Yellowstone’s sequester of funds happened a long time ago. This latest forced cutback is just carving beyond the skin, fat, and muscle of previous year’s slashes down into the bone.

    Congress had been using the Park’s gate receipts for a cash cow, putting all the attendance fees into the US general fund, then appropriating back to the Park Service an anemic amount of those funds. The American people love the National Parks a lot more than Congress’ actual willingness to fund them to reflect that.

    The late Senator Craig Thomas of Cody —a very VERY conservative Republican , did wha he could tor emedy this in his last year’s in office. He rammed a bill thru Congress allowing Yellowstone to keep 60 percent of its gate receipts for its own real needs. That new funding has helped, but it is still too little to overcome Yellowstone’s backlog of maintenance and ever-increasing costs in serving ever-larger numbers of people.

    I am not excusing the Park Service from blame when I say any of this…Yellowstone had been poorly managed for a long time ( till recently anyway ) and had some puzzliong skewed spending policies. Still, they have not been dealt a fair hand by the sequester. The money saved is likely a fraction of what Yellowstone would have taken in or generated in the surrounding communities.

    Congress has done the Big Stupid here with the sequester…

    • Thanks for the info, DeweyV, well done. Is there any way to get Americans to organize and protest the anemic funding of our Parks? Why do these places always get the short-end? I think it happens so slowly and invisibly that people don’t even realize that the robbery is happening.

  5. The cuts to the national parks will hurt the parks themselves and the neighboring communities such as Gardiner and West Yellowstone which derive most of their income from tourism. Why can’t we bring our troops home from Afghanistan sooner? That would save billions of dollars, hurt no stateside businesses, and keep more of our personnel alive and uninjured. Karzai doesn’t seem to want us there anyway, and the troops could bring their families to the parks instead!