Yellowstone National Park officials plan to meet in private with representatives from the state of Wyoming and the town of Cody to discuss snowmobiling over Sylvan Pass. Does that mesh with Park Service Director Mary Bomar's pledge of transparency?
"I will be a leader who demonstrates high ethical standards and promotes transparency in all our activities," Director Bomar told senators during her confirmation hearing back in September 2006.
Since that time there has been an occasion or two when the Park Service's transparency has been questioned. Remember last April when, after the official public comment period for how the Park Service should commemorate its centennial wrapped up, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Director Bomar held an invitation-only conclave in West Virginia to discuss that very topic?
And now we have Yellowstone officials, who initially opposed keeping Sylvan Pass open for snowmobiling because of its cost and safety issues, agreeing to meet in private to discuss that decision. The meetings, by the way, will be Monday and Tuesday at a motel at the Billings, Montana, airport. Why they couldn't meet at park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs or in Cody is a good question.
I have a call into Yellowstone to understand why there's a need for secrecy. What also needs to be answered is why the Park Service is even holding these meetings. Is it rethinking its decision on Sylvan Pass? When the park initially announced its snowmobile decision it planned to close the pass, citing, among other things, the $200,000 a year it would cost to keep it open and the relatively low traffic -- just 13 snowmobiles a day, on average, enter Yellowstone through the east entrance near Cody. Last year that cost worked out to $565 per snowmobile.
Yet now we have two days of meetings, at which the following topics are to be discussed:
* What does Yellowstone National Park do to encourage or control visitation at the park (especially in the winter)?
* What does the city of Cody do to enhance tourism to the city?
* What is the impact of Yellowstone National Park on the economy of Cody?
* How is avalanche forecasting conducted at the park? What does it cost? Are there alternatives to how it is currently conducted? Are there better ways to communicate avalanche forecasting to the public?
* What is the history of the current system? How and why was it put into place the way it was? How has it evolved over time?
* What is the status quo – how is it done now, what does it cost, etc.?
* How do people with avalanche safety experience assess the status quo (at Sylvan Pass)?
* What are alternative ways to mitigate avalanche safety? What are the costs and benefits of each potential alternative option? How should costs/benefits be established?
* Is it acceptable and/or viable to use an independent contractor for avalanche safety mitigation?
* Is it viable to utilize the south ridge of Sylvan Pass?
* What is the impact of current weather patterns (drought, climate change, snow loads) on potential avalanche danger?
* What is the formal process for assessing potential approaches to mitigate avalanche safety?
Here's a question missing from the list: If the cost is too high, both in terms of dollars, human safety, and impacts to the environment (using howitzers for avalanche control is not without impacts), why should the Park Service reverse its initial position on closing Sylvan Pass in the winter?
"The initial recommendation was that the pass would be closed, and that was based on two primary bodies of information. One was the fact that the pass obviously is prone to avalanches -- it's very dangerous not just for visitors but park personnel -- and the second one was the cost," Tony Jewett, senior director for the National Parks Conservation Association's Northern Rockies office, tells me. "They made that recommendation and Cody and the state of Wyoming came unglued."
The upcoming meetings are drawing concern for two reasons: 1) Why the need to meet privately, and 2) Why is the Park Service revisiting its position on Sylvan Pass? The answer to the latter, of course, might be obvious if you recall former NPS Director Fran Mainella's acknowledgment that the Yellowstone snowmobile issue was decided by Interior Department officials, not the Park Service. Plus, Vice President Dick Cheney hails from Wyoming.
"We feel if there are going to be meetings, they sure as heck should be open to the public," said Mr. Jewett. "All parts of them. Right now, they're allowing the public in to listen and participate in certain parts of the two-day meetings, but they have 'executive sessions.' ... There's a possibility of decisions being made about the future use of that pass that are being made among just the people sitting around that table, as opposed to being debated and discussed and decided with the public watching and having a voice."
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade also wonders why the Park Service wants the public excluded from segments of the meetings.
"It just seems not at all wise of the Park Service now to have a closed-door meeting, to insist on a closed-door meeting, when everything up to now (regarding the Yellowstone snowmobile debate) has been wide open to the public and involved public comment," he said. "Regardless of the decisions that come out of it, it's the process that I think is really questionable right now in terms of the Park Service. No matter what decision comes out of it, there always are going to be questions now about what took place behind closed doors."
As with the NPCA, the coalition supported the Park Service's initial decision to close Sylvan Pass to snowmobiling.
The agency's action also has drawn the attention of the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune Editorial Board:
The public's business is always best done in public, and the question of whether Sylvan Pass stays open in Yellowstone National Park next winter is certainly the public's business. There's too much at stake for the area's economy and recreational opportunities for it not to be.
Yet state and federal officials will meet behind closed doors in Billings, Mont., Jan. 28-30 to seek a consensus on the issue. The public and the press aren't invited, but we'll be allowed to attend "informational" segments and will be spoon-fed press releases at the end of each meeting.
Pardon us if we don't say thanks, but we'd like to know what our government is afraid to say in front of its tax-paying citizens.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said the private meeting will encourage "frank discussions." His explanation seems to hint that previous Park Service statements have been something other than frank.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal's press secretary said the Park Service asked for the closed meeting, but the governor is willing to open it to the public.
Why not insist on it?
State Rep. Colin Simpson, R-Cody, wants the pass kept open to revive the area's winter economy. He described himself as an "open meeting type," but said he's willing to live with it if confidential discussions will help resolve the issue. Maybe Simpson can live with it, but the public shouldn't have to.
Closing the meeting may make life easier on Park Service officials, but caving in to their demand breeds mistrust of the entire process.
NPCA, through Yellowstone Program Manager Tim Stevens, also has released an op-ed piece against the closed-door sessions:
When founded, Yellowstone was the world’s first national park—a model for all the world of our nation’s commitment to forever preserve the best examples of its natural and cultural heritage. Every American owns a piece of our national parks and every American has a voice in preserving these treasures for future generations.
The recent decision to deny the public access to meetings that will determine the future of Yellowstone’s east entrance in winter privatizes and makes secret major policy decisions affecting one of the world’s greatest natural, public treasures.
Over the past 10 years, the public has participated in discussions about managing Yellowstone in winter, including the potential of closing the park’s east entrance, Sylvan Pass. In 2005, Yellowstone published a 39-page ‘Participation Plan,’ about winter use issues, with the stated goal: “…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.”
Yet despite this tradition of public input and stated interest in transparency, the public recently learned that upcoming policy discussions about Sylvan Pass would be held behind closed doors. While it remains unclear which party decided that these discussions—which are slated to include the Park Service, Wyoming Governor Freudenthal’s office, elected officials from Cody, and the Cody Enterprise newspaper— should not include the public, it is clear that this decision should be reversed.
These discussions are the continuation of the public dialog begun last fall when the Park Service announced plans to close Sylvan Pass in the winter citing well-documented concerns about avalanche dangers and the extensive financial burden on this cash-strapped park.
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 dialogue. Decisions affecting our public lands and the use of the public’s funds demand opportunity for public participation.
As I wrote last month, economic greed long has had a deleterious effect on management of our national parks; the greed swirling around the Yellowstone snowmobile issue is just the latest example. That it needs to be discussed behind closed doors is a black mark on the Park Service, which is supposed to be managing the park system for the entire American public, not just the town of Cody.