Despite internal concerns for safety and high costs for a small number of people, the National Park Service has agreed to provide winter access across Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone National Park. However, conditions tied to that access could make it easy for the pass to stay snow-bound as Yellowstone officials initially wanted.
Intermountain Regional Director Mike Snyder today signed the amended "Record of Decision" that is to guide winter-use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The key amendment calls for over-snow travel across Sylvan Pass. However, the added language specifies that the pass will only be open between December 22 and March 1 and then only if weather allows, if safety can be maintained, if equipment is available to groom the route, and if the Park Service can afford to maintain the pass.
Last fall when Yellowstone officials signed off on their latest Environmental Impact Statement on snowmobiling in the park, their preferred alternative was to 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 during the course of six months of meetings 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.
How much of a fiscal burden will it be to Yellowstone to keep the pass open?
The park's FY2008 budget reflected an increase of about $1 million over its 2007 budget. Under the decision Regional Director Snyder has approved, it could cost Yellowstone 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 endorsed by the Park Service is four times Yellowstone's 2008 budget increase.
Last winter 463 people traveled over Sylvan Pass from Cody. At that rate, based on the nearly $4 million Yellowstone soon could find itself spending to keep Sylvan Pass safe, the cost would equate to $8,470.76 per person.
As for safety, Park Service officials say a combination of avalanche mitigation techniques might be used on Sylvan Pass, including forecasting and helicopter and howitzer dispensed explosives, as well as techniques that may be available in the future. It is the intent of the agency to review and update the previous Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Operational Risk Management Assessment safety evaluations, and to evaluate additional avalanche mitigation techniques in order to further improve safety and visitor access.
In a release issued today Park Service officials say avalanche management at Sylvan Pass may necessitate unscheduled, temporary closures of the road segment through the pass. Management of the avalanche risk cannot guarantee the pass will be open every day of the winter season.
Now, as for the rest of Yellowstone, if the approved winter-use plan withstands court challenges, beginning this winter 540 "Best Available Technology" snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches will be allowed per day in Yellowstone, during a winter season which starts on December 15 and ends March 15 each year, weather and snow conditions permitting.
Thirty BAT snowmobiles and two snowcoaches will be allowed per day through the park’s East Entrance during the core season of December 22 through March 1.
All snowmobiles and snowcoaches will continue to be 100 percent commercially guided, and may travel only on existing park roads groomed for their use. Trail and off-road use of snowmobiles and snowcoaches has always been, and will continue to be, prohibited.