Can the National Park Service, which has a staggering maintenance backlog and shortage of curatorial staff and facilities, afford to spend roughly $700 per visitor to keep Yellowstone National Park's Sylvan Pass open in the winter for snowmobilers? That question is being posed to the Office of Management and Budget.
Raising the question as Yellowstone officials begin work on identifying their preferred alternative in the final Environmental Impact Statement on winter-use in the park are the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club.
"A Yellowstone ranger was killed while performing a snowmobile patrol of the area in 1994," reads the letter sent to OMB this week. "Since that tragedy, the National Park Service has repeatedly determined, including in a study released two months ago, that the travel corridor known as Sylvan Pass is inherently hazardous. Nonetheless, the Service has again proposed to keep Sylvan Pass open to winter travelers by triggering avalanches with a howitzer. The cost of the program would be over $700 per visitor."
In the letter the organizations ask OMB to determine if it makes sense to spend roughly $300,000 a year on keeping the pass open. (The OMB, the groups note, "is the arm of the White House that seeks to assure sound use of federal tax dollars and mission-driven performance gains by federal agencies.")
The letter also points out that of the more than 3 million visitors who enter Yellowstone each year, fewer than one in 6,000 cross the pass in winter.
"At a time when our national parks are contending with an annual operations shortfall of more than $600 million that is intensifying the challenge to protect the parks’ natural and cultural resources and historic artifacts, it defies imagination that Yellowstone can afford to spend a third of a million dollars every winter detonating explosives so that fewer than 500 visitors can travel through an avalanche-prone pass," the groups said in announcing their letter to OMB.
"While some have argued that keeping Sylvan Pass open is justified by the snowmobiling it affords, only an average of 90 snowmobiles have traveled over the pass in recent winters. That makes the cost of avalanche control a startling $3,600 per snowmobile.
"The proposal that Yellowstone should accept inherent health and safety risks, use explosives that also pose a threat to the park’s resources and some hikers, and allocate a large sum of tax dollars to accommodate so few visitors is a stark exception within the National Park System. National parks including Glacier, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Yosemite and Rocky Mountain long have employed winter road closures to avoid inherent hazards and uphold the National Park Service’s protective management policies.”
To further buttress the message in their letter, the groups noted that in 2007 a Park Service EIS determined that the instability of snow in the chutes that rise above Sylvan Pass and the road it carries into Yellowstone's interior is extreme and that the chutes put "travelers at risk of being hit by an avalanche and swept down the slope, almost certainly to their deaths.”
The 2007 study also described precautions put in place to reduce hazards to employees who perform avalanche control operations but then concluded, “Even with these mitigations, the risk remains extreme and unavoidable," the letter continues.
“We believe that the National Park Service’s current proposal to downgrade health and safety in order to provide access for approximately 500 visitors at a cost of over $300,000—and to shell Yellowstone with explosives—is not in actuality the preferred option of the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park nor the director of the National Park Service; that political pressure has shaped the proposal over which a decision is due later this year," the letter adds. "We respectfully ask you to help assure that safety will be the top priority in management of winter use in Yellowstone.”