Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Struggles With Need To Use Explosives For Over-Snow Access

Twenty avalanche chutes rise above Sylvan Pass, which Yellowstone officials work to keep open with a mix of howitzer fire and helicopter-dropped bombs to ensure safe passage for a small number of snowmobile and snowcoach visitors. NPS graphic.

At Glacier National Park, exactly when in summer the Going-to-the-Sun Road will be open end-to-end is hard to predict, due to the heavy snows that fall along the Continental Divide there.

In Yellowstone National Park, a schedule determines when the road over Sylvan Pass will open in spring -- this year, the schedule calls for the route to be open from Lake to the East Entrance by May 3, although if the budget sequestration takes effect that could be delayed until June -- and park crews try to adhere to it.

With artillery rounds.

Two national parks in the Rocky Mountains, two very different approaches to clearing away winter's snows to make way for summer visitors.

“Every day," Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said last week when asked if he struggles, philosophically, with using 105 mm howitzers to bomb a pass in the world's first national park so perhaps 100 snowmobiles and snowcoaches can safely motor over it.

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This is how crews in Glacier work to remove snow from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. NPS photo.

"One of the questions I asked shortly after I arrived in Yellowstone was if we didn’t use howitzers on Sylvan Pass in the winter, would we use them to open the road in the spring?" the superintendent continued. "And the answer I was told was 'yes.' The howitzers are being used not only for keeping access over Sylvan Pass in the winter, but they’re also used to open the road in the spring. I think that’s a question that we’ve had numerous discussions with the stakeholders on the east side of the park. Do I struggle with it? yes I do.

“I would love to find a way to provide the access that we need without having to do that.”

At Glacier, crews rely on gravity and sunshine to help clear the Sun Road. They do employ quite a few snowplows, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment to move the snow off the road, beginning, if possible, in April and winding up, if possible, sometime in June, and sometimes in July.

But they don't use bombs.

In Yellowstone, Superintendent Wenk alludes to the political pressures "on the east side of the park" that play a role the ongoing use of howitzers, both to keep Sylvan Pass open in winter and cleared off in spring. He said there have been discussions about moving toward the approach Glacier uses with the Sun Road in spring.

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This is what Yellowstone crews use to clear avalanche chutes above Sylvan Pass.

"Those are, as you might imagine, very difficult discussions," he said.

Political influences are common throughout the National Park System, but they can be particularly strong undercurrents in Yellowstone, as Superintendent Wenk's predecessor, Susan Lewis, discovered when she tried to approve a winter-use plan that did not include keeping Sylvan Pass open.

Ratcheting up the political pressure was the fact that the occupant of the vice president's office at the time was from Wyoming, Dick Cheney.

A new book from Michael J. Yochim, Protecting Yellowstone, Science and the Politics Of National Park Management, recounts what then-Superintendent Lewis encountered.

Upset over the possible loss of motorized winter access to Yellowstone over Sylvan Pass, Cody residents and Wyoming congressional representatives reacted strongly. Opposition sprang up form citizens groups in the Cody area, as well as from all levels of Wyoming government (city, county, and state). It did not take long before Vice President Cheney heard from his former neighbors. As Cheney later added:

"We did work with the Park Service. My office was contacted by folks from Cody. I talked to Colin Simpson (Cody state senator and son of Alan Simpson). I'm familiar generally with the importance of that east entrance to folks in Cody, the business community there. I recommended that my staff work on trying to keep that entrance open. As vice president, I don't run anything. I'm not in charge of the Park Service, but I can make suggestions, and my staff is actively involved in a lot of those issues on my behalf."

Cheney understated his influence, for just a few months later Yellowstone's managers changed their plans and decided to continue their avalanche-control program with only minor changes. They would close Sylvan Pass about ten days earlier in spring than the rest of the park roads, to save a small amount of funding, but the safety issues were not addressed in any significant manner. Park employees continue to travel under the uncontrolled avalanche zones to reach the howitzer.

Those politics continue today, and until they wane Yellowstone crews will shuttle between 100 and 300 55-pound artillery rounds to Sylvan Pass each year for use in winter avalanche control and spring snow removal. And come summer, they'll mark the hillsides above the pass off-limits to hikers, just in case there might be a stray round or two that didn't detonate.


Thanks for this article, Kurt. Political influences in national park areas are much stronger than most folks realize -- or are willing to admit. No doubt political pressures will make managing budget cuts much more difficult for park managers.

Whats the issue?

Kind of like Dick Cheney's remark when he was informed that the 3000th American soldier had just been killed in Iraq.

He shrugged his shoulders and said, "So?"

Lee - care to document that? I suspect you have totally mischaracterized the comment.

Just as you mischaracterized the "Walmart subsidy". That was not some alturistic jester because town council was in bed with Walmart. The town (not federal goverment) wasn't subsidizing Walmart, they cut a deal with Walmart which would bring in substantial additional revenues to the the town. The town was far better off (financially) with the Walmart deal than without.

And I ask again - what is the issue in the above article? The national forest service and ski partrols use howitzer's and other explosives all the time here in Colorado for avalanche control without incident.

EC, it's a fairly straightforward issue: Should the National Park Service, which is mandated to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein..." for future generations, be using military howitzers to clear avalanche paths?

More so, in these fiscal times, should it be spending what equates to $1,250 per person through the winter months in the process....??

Yellowstone is not a national forest, it's a national park, and the Park Service has more a more stringent mandate when it comes to managing the parks.

Should the National Park Service, which is mandated to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein..." for future generations, be using military howitzers to clear avalanche paths?

I don't see anything in the story that suggeststhat any damage to the scenery and the natural and historic objects or wildlife therein. Is there meaningful destruction or are these rounds being lobbed into banks of snow initiating avalaches what would occur anyway?

As to $1250 per person, I'm not sure wher that number came from. Does sound high but I would have to know the details before I could express an opinion.

ec, and here I thought you read the Traveler regularly and faithfully! All your questions have been answered in previous stories. The $1,250 fee was mentioned just last week in the story about the park's proposed winter-use plan. It's based on the $125,000 the park spends to keep the pass open for over-snow traffic.

As for the damage, just on its face that's quite obvious. But here's some more background for you:

From last weeks article

at $125,000 per winter, or roughly $1,200 per

that math works out to 104 visitors for the season. Doesn't seem quite right.

"As for the damage, just on its face that's quite obvious."

Not only is it not obvious, I don't see anything in that article that attributes actual damages to the use of cannons or explosives.

100-104 is the correct number coming over Sylvan Pass last winter, according to park officials.

As for the obvious damage, well, I guess we just have different ideas of how a national park, especially the world's first national park, should be managed. Lobbing artillery rounds into mountainsides just doesn't seem right.

It seems the economic loss or benefit to Cody would be fairly small for a hundred or so people. Seems like an easy thing to cut, even putting aside the possible damage to wildlife and landscape.

I'm fairly certain that myself and most other military veterans can testify to what sorts of damage explosives can do to the landscape.

It is truly hard to imagine anyone arguing this point.

Lobbing artillery rounds into mountainsides just doesn't seem right.

I like to look at what is real - not what seems. But if it is indeed only 100 people in the entire winter, it is an exorbitant cost and should be stopped for that reason - unless those 100 people are willing to put up the $1200.

But opening Sylvan Pass occurred as a direct result of political pressure on the park service. It had nothing to do with cost/benefit -- it all boiled down a few politcally powerful people deciding it needed to be done and then forcing it to be done. When someone like Dick Cheney barks, people are expected to obey.

As for damage, I believe there have been one or two deaths of NPS personnel in the last few years on Sylvan Pass. Not directly due to avalanches, but due to the fact that they had to be out there trying make sure the pass was safe for others. Is that damage enough?

Here's a link to a PDF containing a letter from Superintendent Wenk regarding this mess.

Here's another:

I posted this here a couple of days ago, but apparently our resident critic didn't bother to read it.

And this one:

Just Google Sylvan Pass costs or Sylvan pass deaths and you'll find dozens of related articles.

But it's much easier to just condemn others than actually try to learn facts.

Lee, we were talking about damages to " the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein..."

Now - how about the documentation of Chaney's comment. Or are you going to apologize for your slander.

I thought we were talking about wasteful government spending and how political shenanigans may cause it. Don't dodge the issue.

Please, let's try to stay on topic and not go down rabbit holes.

how political shenanigans may cause it.

Oh my god, public officials represented their constituents interest. How awful.

Most pork comes from "representing constituents interests." As long as they have lots of money to "contribute."

I'm gonna go visit my six-year old grand daughter. She makes more sense.

ec-- "But if it is indeed only 100 people in the entire winter, it is an exorbitant cost and should be stopped for that reason - unless those 100 people are willing to put up the $1200."

This is the first thing you have said in a long time that makes sense. And that is the right number. The politicians that are breathing down the Superintendent's neck about Sylvan Pass are Governor Mead and Senator Barrasso. I have heard Supt. Wenk say that if he tried to close Sylvan Pass based on budget realities, Barrassao would simply include the money to keep the Pass open in the next appropriations bill.

You need to stop sniveling about this kind of stuff.


You need to stop sniveling about this kind of stuff.

Sniveling? I said I would not express an opinion until I had the facts and when I got the facts, I said it was a waste of money. What is sniveling about that? I would say that making false accusations about a former vice-president fits more into the catagoring of sniveling.

I would also say the $125,000 involved here is meaningless. Why don't you whine about the multi billion dollar programs that are wasting money?

Holding your opinion until you have the facts didn't extend to your opining that explosives don't affect the landscapes.

Try setting off a simple pound of C-4 in your backyard and see if your opinion changes.

Let's see. Can anyone tell us how many $125,000 meaninglessnesses are contained in a billion?

In an interview with ABC News on May 24, 2008, Cheney was told the 4,000th American had died (sorry, I said 3000th earlier). He commented, "So? They volunteered."

I guess 4000 soldiers were meaningless, too.

Rick, please go back and read my post. I didn't definitavely state there was no impact, i merely noted that there was not anything in this or the referenced articles that identified any specific damage. I am also aware that explosives in a snowbank will have different impacts on the land than explosives laying on bare ground. I regulary hike through areas where explosives are used for avalance control and have never noticed any damage. Perhaps there is some, but no one has shown it here yet.

Lee, I read the article in your link and didn't see the statement. So, I did a search of "So? They volunteered" in the article and nothing came up. All I can conclude is that either you meant to link a different article, or once again you made it up and slandered a former vice president.

Google: 'cheney so they volunteered' ---> 41,200,000 responses in 0.41 seconds.

FYI, of course - Cheney himself volunteered - to be deferred from service - five times.

Sure Rich but point us to one that actually shows that was his verbatum response to a question about 3,000/4000 deaths.

Go away. That's the sort of niggling pseudo-debate stuff learned by Freepers and reminiscent of what barkie dogs do to your pants cuffs.

Pretty hard to slander a person who helped lie us into a war -- unfunded, by the way.

I just had a conversation with my grand daughter. Really refreshing to hear some honest wisdom.

And thanks, Rick. I was trying to figure out what was happening to my pants cuffs.

In other words Rick and Lee you are willing to fabricate anything To suit your cause. Facts dont matter.

I guess we need to find a few other thousand users of the pass in the winter to make it cost effective. :)

Getting back to facts about the situation under discussion, here is a letter from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Now, despite thinking it, THAT was an ad hominem line I haven't crossed.

I'll defer to management.

Last time I heard the ad hominem inference I think it was Maxine Waters holding on to Congressional protical, it's worked so well. Good company, I suppose. Now, how about addressing our real problems.