Were Yellowstone National Park officials simply being neighborly when they reversed themselves on whether to keep Sylvan Pass open for snowmobile traffic during the winter months? Or were their feet being scorched by the political fires that too often seem to influence management decisions?
This is an important distinction to make, particularly during these fiscally challenging times, because the answer points to whether National Park Service managers are being forced to make the most politically expedient decisions for the parks and not allowed to merely make the best ones.
Of course, you probably can answer that question without going any further if you're familiar with the past decade's history of winter-use planning in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The Clinton administration decided recreational snowmobile use should be phased out in favor of cleaner, more efficient snowcoach traffic. The Bush administration opposed that decision and now, some $10 million later and science to the contrary, snowmobiles are scheduled to remain in the parks. At least until the next court decision and next administration.
Still, the recent decision involving Cody and Sylvan Pass is perhaps particularly glaring -- some no doubt would say galling -- not simply because it highlights the inequities across the National Park System, the "haves" and "have nots" if you will, but because of what Yellowstone officials are committing themselves to in terms of dollars and sense. "Sense," as in what makes sense.
Last fall when Yellowstone officials signed off on their latest Environmental Impact Statement on snowmobiling in the park their preferred alternative shut down winter traffic over the pass. Why? Because, those officials said, they couldn't afford the requisite winter maintenance there and it wasn't safe for employees or park visitors under current conditions. That safety concern stems from 20 avalanche chutes that tower over the pass.
But apparently some phone calls were made between Washington and Denver before Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder could sign the Record of Decision approving the park's preferred alternative. For when the ink was dry, shoehorned into the ROD's wording was a commitment that the Park Service would work with Cody and Wyoming officials "to further explore reasonable avalanche and access mitigation safety measures and costs."
Now, during the course of six months of meetings that that wording spawned, Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis eventually bought into the Wyomingites' arguments that she somehow could afford to keep the pass open for the relative handful of snowmobilers and cross-country skiers who enter the park through its east entrance, which lies but 53 miles west of Cody.
Actually, her conversion might not have been achieved until the last five or six weeks before she announced it, for on April 25 the superintendent was quoted as saying that she didn't "have any money" to pay for making the pass safe for winter visitors.
Now, we might never know exactly what changed Superintendent Lewis' mind, as the key negotiations were staged out of the public's view. But it must have been something substantial.
The park's FY2008 budget reflected an increase of about $1 million over its 2007 budget. Under the proposal Superintendent Lewis now seems ready to agree to, it could cost her park nearly $4 million to provide safe wintertime passage across Sylvan Pass if all Occupational Safety and Health Administration concerns are addressed. That total includes $3.46 million in one-time costs and $456,216 in recurring annual operational costs that no doubt will be driven up by inflation.
In other words, the preferred Sylvan Pass plan now being backed by the superintendent is four times her 2008 budget increase. Does that make fiscal sense?
In discussing the costs of making Sylvan Pass safe, Superintendent Lewis said that there "aren't many ways that you're going to reduce those costs in a significant way," and that she would simply seek the funds through the normal budgetary process.
What's interesting about those comments, and what points to political interference in the management of the National Park System in general and Yellowstone specifically, is that this "que sera sera" attitude is not what's been drummed into park managers in recent years. You simply don't acquiesce to demands that seem to run counter to logic and ask Washington to pay the bill. Especially not since the Park Service in recent years began requiring its superintendents to conduct "core operations analyses" by which they are to comb their budgets to focus on the core needs of running their parks.
So what happened in Yellowstone's case? After much scrutiny and number-crunching park officials determine they can't justify the cost and safety issues involved with keeping Sylvan Pass open, and six months later they can, even though they don't have the money and somehow will have to beg, borrow, or steal it?
And yet, 560 miles to the south there's another unit of the National Park System, Dinosaur National Monument, that obviously doesn't have the political cache of a Yellowstone. You'd think it might, as part of the monument is in Utah, which, politically, is the reddest state in the nation. But it doesn't. No, Dinosaur's superintendent was forced to eliminate two of the three staff positions in her paleontological division because she couldn't find the $200,000 or so in salaries and benefits for those two positions.
Two-hundred-thousand-dollars. An insurmountable financial mountain at Dinosaur, and yet apparently pocket change at Yellowstone.
Would anyone argue that two of three paleontological positions in a park that was created around paleontology are less valuable than winter recreation over an inherently dangerous pass for a relatively small number of folks? And when you frame that question, recall that during the winter of 2007-08 the cost-per-person of keeping that pass open was calculated to be $645 and change.
Look around the park system and you quickly can spot staff reductions forced on park managers because the dollars supposedly don't exist. At Acadia National Park there are 20 vacancies on the 100-person staff. At Blue Ridge Parkway there are 45 or more vacancies. At Gettsyburg National Military Park more than two dozen full-time employees have been let go the past two decades due to insufficient funding. Canyonlands National Park did away with a deputy superintendent's position when the incumbent retired to save $122,000. Rocky Mountain National Park filled a deputy superintendent's job with a division chief, and then left that position vacant to make ends meet.
Indeed, budget cuts are forcing parks more and more to turn to volunteers to handle jobs previously done by full-time rangers, to reduce visitor center hours, to somehow do more with less.
And yet at Yellowstone, when a gateway community with political ties that run up to the vice president's office says it wants winter access for, what worked out to be 463 people last winter, park officials jump. At that rate, when you figure the cost-per-person based on the nearly $4 million Yellowstone soon could find itself spending to keep Sylvan Pass safe it leaps to $8,470.76.
Whether times are financially challenging or not, is that how parks should be spending their precious dollars?