The Washington Post

At Yellowstone, locals step in to help solve budget woes

A bighorn sheep rests on a hillside in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley. (Erik Petersen/For The Washington Post)

Small communities around Yellowstone National Park are raising almost $200,000 in private donations to do what the park cannot this year because of budget cuts: Open on time for spring visitors.

Businesses and local residents in Cody and Jackson, Wy., small towns that rely on spending by park visitors for their survival, have donated close to $170,000 to have the high mountain roads at two park entrances plowed.

The park typically plows hundreds of miles of high-altitude, deep-snow roads inside the park, and many others outside, starting March 4. But that was three days after sequestration forced park superintendent Dan Wenk to cut $1.8 million from his budget over the seven remaining months of the fiscal year.

Wenk decided to idle Yellowstone’s plows, letting the early-spring sun melt some of the snow, delaying plowing and opening most park gates two weeks late. The delay would have saved $250,000.

But local communities pressed for an alternative, concerned that the delay would cost them millions of dollars in tourism revenue. Late last week Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) agreed to back a plan to allow state equipment and highway workers to clear snow along the park’s heavily used east and south entrances — as long as private money paid the bill.

“We’re showing how a community and a state can band together,” said Jeff Golightly, executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the old cowboy way: We’ll open that gate if you can’t.”

Jackson is 56 miles from the park’s south entrance. The chamber and the town’s travel and tourism board have agreed to pay the $70,600 needed to plow 16 miles from the south gate inside the park; park crews will clear an additional eight. The entrance will open May 10 instead of May 24, giving access to about 19,000 visitors.

Cody, to the east, is providing $60,000 toward a $100,000 fundraising goal that’s being matched dollar for dollar by the local Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Scott Balyo said some donors are individuals. “We’re getting checks for $50, $100,” he said. “They say they feel this affects the whole state.”

He said he is confident enough money will come in to plow the 23 miles needed to open the entrance on May 3 instead of May 17.

Mead considered, but ruled out, using state money to plow the roads, saying he did not feel right bailing out a “federal screw-up,” referring to Congress’s failure to reach an agreement to reduce the deficit. Across-the-board cuts totaling $84 billion kicked in March 1 for almost all federal agencies, which have little latitude to decide where to cut.

The business leaders cautioned that they do not want to set a precedent.

“It’s not anything we expect to ever do again,” Golightly said.

Said Balyo: “We have said to our membership: This shouldn’t be our responsibility. C’mon, Washington, let’s get it together, because you’re holding the economy hostage.”

Wenk said he is “not worried about setting a precedent.”

“I have told [the business communities] that this is a one-year solution and if these cuts of the sequestration are continued into the fiscal 2014 budget, we will have to evaluate all options for future years.”

Wenk has said he would consider closing Yellowstone to winter visitors if sequestration stays in effect next year. Fewer than 100,000 snowmobilers and other tourists trek to the park in winter.

The park is finding other savings to cover the cuts through a hiring freeze, a reduced seasonal workforce, and leaner visitors services.

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Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.

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