Yellowstone National Park officials met earlier this week with several representatives from Wyoming to discuss the options at their disposal for bombing snow-covered mountain slopes in our nation’s first national park.
To keep it clear of avalanche danger for the handful of snowmobiles and snowcoaches that enter the park through Sylvan Pass on the park’s east side each day during the winter season.
Among the hardware options discussed were a new 105 mm howitzer, a series of permanently mounted “Gazex” propane-powered fireball throwers, dropping explosive charges from a helicopter by hand, and installing a "trolley" system of cables across avalanche-prone ridges where explosives could be dropped remotely.
After 10 years of study (and at a cost of more than $10 million!), the National Park Service finally released its plan in September regarding how to manage use of Yellowstone during the winter season. In the plan, the Park Service decided to discontinue its avalanche control program and close the park’s East Entrance, which crosses Sylvan Pass, to over-snow vehicles during the winter season.
The Park Service expressed valid concerns about the well-documented risk posed to park employees responsible for clearing the pass of avalanche danger as well as the unjustifiably high financial cost of maintaining the route to accommodate only a trickle of visitors in this cash-strapped park.
However, residents of Cody –which is located 53 miles east of Yellowstone’s East Entrance -- and Park County, Wyoming, successfully lobbied to force a change in the final Winter Use Record of Decision (ROD), issued in December. Instead of closing the pass in the winter, the ROD established a ‘Study Group’ made up of two Yellowstone officials and eight Wyoming representatives (all eight were proponents for keeping the pass open), to hammer out a ‘compromise’, due on June 1 of this year.
The goal of the group was not to determine if the pass should be open in winter, but how to provide continued motorized over snow access through the east entrance.
The Study Group also decided that portions of meetings would be closed to the public. The meetings earlier this week had three such closed-door sessions, marking the first time in more than 10 years of public involvement that the public has been excluded from a meeting about winter use in Yellowstone. The National Parks Conservation Association and others made repeated appeals to open all of the meetings to the public, but to no avail.
By excluding the public from these discussions, the Park Service ignored its own winter use ‘Public Participation Plan.’ Completed in 2005, the goal of this plan is: “…to build trust and transparency for the process, and, the hope is, build trust and transparency in the resulting winter use management actions. Every contact opportunity is an opportunity to build or lose trust.”
This tradition of open and public dialog has been undermined.
No other national park uses explosives to clear a route of avalanche danger for discretionary recreational use. The Park Service’s effort and expense clearing Sylvan Pass was made to accommodate, on average, 13 uses of this east park entrance per day each winter for the past three years.
In fact, as many visitors enter Yellowstone in one busy summer day as the entire 90-day winter season from this east entrance! Park administrators currently spend $200,000 annually on Sylvan Pass avalanche control, or an average of $170 per visitor, at a time when an analysis of Yellowstone's finances has demonstrated an annual shortfall of nearly $23 million.
Yet the least expensive option being discussed by the Study Group (the ‘enhanced howitzer’ option) would cost over $2.2 million to install and an additional $275,000 per year to operate, according to the Park Service’s own analysis. Finally, no less than 20 avalanche paths sit above the pass. Natural releases occur every season, and Park Service employees and equipment have been hit in the past.
Since 98 percent of visitors only use the Sylvan Pass east entrance in summer, its winter closure has little impact on Cody's local economy. The Wyoming Department of Revenue reports that Park County’s winter tax revenues and motel/hotel tax receipts have continued to grow between 2002 and 2006, despite declining use of the Sylvan entrance in winter.
A small committee behind closed doors should not decide these critical issues involving human lives and taxpayer dollars. These deliberations affect not just an American icon, but also all of us who share in the responsibility of protecting it for future generations. Closed meetings fly in the face of our Western tradition of open dialog. Decisions affecting our public lands and the use of the public funds demand opportunity for public participation.
Tim Stevens, based in Livingston, Montana, is the Yellowstone program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Northern Rockies Regional Office.