In a nearly complete reversal of their initial decision, Yellowstone National Park officials are now recommending that Sylvan Pass and the park's east entrance be kept open for winter use.
The recommendation, which is heading for Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder to amend onto the park's winter-use plan, came out of a closed door meeting in Billings, Montana, today. In fact, it follows on a series of meetings -- some open, some closed -- the past six months between park officials and representatives from Cody, Wyoming, and the state of Wyoming.
The announcement of the recommendation was brief, just nine short paragraphs that seemed to represent a capitulation on behalf of the National Park Service in that not only did it reverse the agency's initial stand on Sylvan Pass but also left Yellowstone responsible for the costs of maintaining winter use through the pass.
Tim Stevens, the Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, called the recommendation an "embarrassment" to the National Park Service.
“We’re confounded. It represents a complete reversal from where the Park Service has previously been on this issue," said Mr. Stevens. "It even goes further in that the Park Service has committed to taking away precious dollars that they don’t have and now using it to bomb Sylvan Pass for a handful of visitors.”
When the park initially announced its winter-use plan last fall, it calling for closing of the pass due to the cost of avalanche control and for the safety of park employees and visitors. For the winter of 2007-2008 the east entrance saw just 463 people pass through and head over Sylvan Pass, according to Park Service records cited by Mr. Stevens. For that traffic the park incurred avalanche control and maintenance costs of $298,806, or $645.37 per visitor, he added.
According to Mr. Stevens, if Region Director Snyder approves the amendment the cost of maintaining the pass during the winter months will be substantial for Yellowstone as it's been estimated that it will cost nearly $3.5 million to address all the safety concerns raised by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"After that initial investment –- and that’s just to get it up to what’s acceptable to OSHA -– after that the annual cost of operating would go to $465,216 every season. So nearly half a million dollars to keep this thing operating,” he added. "Really, this comes down to the fact that despite ten years and $10 million spent (on environmental studies) trying to sort our winter use in Yellowstone, politicians have once again trumped the protection of the park’s resources and Park Service employees.
"It’s an embarrassment to the Park Service. When you look at the background of this, not only was it ten years and $10 million, but it was the most-commented-on issue that the Park Service has ever taken public comment on," the NPCA representative said. "Now you have a situation where, for six months behind closed doors, the Park Service has been negotiating with representatives from Wyoming on this very narrow interest. "
Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis, however, hailed the recommendation, calling it a "consensus recommendation."
If so, it's one built on the Park Service's back. According to the superintendent the only conciliation made by Cody, Park County, and the state of Wyoming was to agree to lop three weeks off the winter season through Yellowstone's east entrance. While the rest of the park's 2008-2009 winter season will run Dec. 15-March 15, the east entrance under this recommendation wouldn't open until Dec. 22 and would close March 1.
As for her new belief that the park can afford to keep the pass open in winter, the superintendent acknowledged that maintaining the pass "is a costly program, as many of the programs are in the park."
"When you look at trying to balance the desire for access and the cost of running many of our operations in the park, I guess you could do the math that way (per person) on just about any operation, 'What the cost is of operating a bathroom,'" she said. "It's a cost that is real. I mean, there aren't many ways that you're going to reduce those costs in a significant way, whatever kind of mathematic equation you're going to come up with."
Aside from the additional costs, Mr. Stevens called the decision "a slap in the face of the tens of thousands of people who have cared enough to speak up for the protection of Yellowstone for the past ten years.” His reference was to the thousands of people who took the time to comment on Yellowstone's winter-use alternatives and reject the one calling for continued recreational snowmobile access.
Superintendent Lewis, however, maintained that those comments were taken into consideration when park planners wrote their winter-use recommendations.
Drafted by the Sylvan Pass Study Group, the proposed amendment also calls for "continued use of a combination of avalanche mitigation techniques, including forecasting and helicopter and howitzer dispensed explosives."
And while the proposal says "the city of Cody, Park County, and the state of Wyoming agree, in good faith, to work cooperatively to explore funding of safety and access improvements," it ends by stating that the "National Park Service agrees to make funding for safety and access improvements on Sylvan Pass a priority."
"Now the National Park Service is going to go around and try and find money," said Mr. Stevens. "Does that mean they’re going to take it out of interpretive programs for children in Yellowstone? Does it mean they’re going to take it out of the road budget?”
Superintendent Lewis said she would seek additional funding through the budgetary process to help cover the costs of maintaining Sylvan Pass in winter.