Gazette opinion: Consider cooperative routes to park plowing

2013-03-06T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Consider cooperative routes to park plowing The Billings Gazette
March 06, 2013 12:00 am

If folks from Yellowstone Country had decided how to cut federal spending, they wouldn’t have started by paring National Park Service spending across the board.

They wouldn’t have required Yellowstone and other national parks to slash their budgets five months into the fiscal year, threatening vacation plans and gateway community businesses.

But this is what the federal “sequester” has wrought. Republican congressional leaders and President Barack Obama did not agree to a better way, so America is stuck, for now, with the sequester that was written into law as a plan so bad it would force lawmakers to change it before it took effect.

Back here in Montana and Wyoming, we can’t immediately change the latest dumb law to come out of Washington, D.C. But we can lessen its impact on our tourism industry.

The most immediate effect of Yellowstone Park cuts will be delays in spring snow plowing that will result in some park roads and entrances opening one to three weeks later than planned.

The money saved is projected to be $100,000 to $300,000, depending on how much spring snow must be cleared and how many times it would have to be plowed.

With millions of tourist dollars per week at stake in the region, local, regional and state tourism promotion organizations could collaborate to subsidize plowing of park roads. Sure, these agencies already have their budgets set. They would have to decide what is the highest priority: Spring opening of the centerpiece of the regional tourism industry or something else.

Creative solutions

Second, some of the most costly plowing work for Yellowstone Park crews actually takes place outside the park. YNP has plowed the Wyoming portion of Beartooth Highway from Cooke City to the Montana state line high on Beartooth Pass. The Montana Department of Transportation plows and maintains the highway from Red Lodge to the Wyoming line. The MDOT could plow the mountain highway to the intersection with Chief Joseph Highway.

The Chief Joseph Highway (Wyoming 296) links Wyoming Highway 120 between Belfry and Cody, Wyo., with Highway 212. If the Wyoming Department of Transportation cleared the 10 miles between the Chief Joseph Highway intersection and the Northeast Entrance, Cody visitors would have an attractive, alternative, lower-elevation route into Yellowstone -- even if the opening of Sylvan Pass and the East Entrance Road was delayed.

Workforce reductions

In Glacier National Park, forced cuts may delay the opening of Going to the Sun Road till mid-June. Nationwide, the NPS is required to cut $110 million. Snow plowing delay is just the beginning. Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said the park isn’t replacing some permanent employees, will hire dozens fewer seasonal workers for the busy summer season and may reduce employee hours. In Grand Teton National Park, the workforce will be reduced and three visitor centers will be closed.

National Parks Conservation Association President Tom Kiernan summed up the situation accurately, saying: “These indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to our 398 national parks will harm tourism-dependent businesses and communities if our elected leaders allow them to last.”

Montana and Wyoming’s congressional delegations need to be leaders in efforts to resolve gridlock in Washington. Meanwhile, if state leaders, business people and other concerned citizens of our great states put their minds and resources into cooperative efforts, the sequester of 2013 need not delay the opening of Yellowstone Park.

Another cooperative effort is needed to get the word out this spring and summer that Yellowstone is open and that wonderful adventures await those who take new routes.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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