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Yellowstone gets real about budget cuts
First Published Mar 11 2013 10:49 am • Last Updated Mar 11 2013 10:51 am

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. • The giant yellow snowplows that wake Yellowstone from its winter slumber every March are idled, waiting for the sun to make up for federal budget cuts that are forcing the park to open late for peak season.

Mandatory cuts kicked in three days before the plows were to start clearing snow and ice from 300 roads at altitudes that reach 11,000 feet. Faced with an order from Washington to slice $1.8 million from his budget, park Superintendent Dan Wenk had considered his options.

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He could slash the ranks of the 430 seasonal rangers, guides and other employees who help keep Yellowstone running every summer. But it would mean fewer visitor centers, walking tours and a risk to public safety.

He could halt the bison management program — but the program is required under a court settlement. He could close the park for two weeks before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, but that would mean shutting out 267,000 visitors.

Or he could keep the seasonals, just fewer of them, and bring them on two weeks later, saving $450,000. He could freeze all permanent hires ($1 million), delay the snowplows ($250,000) and open most entrances two weeks late. About 50,000 visitors would be lost, and hundreds of fishing and hiking guides, rangers and concession workers would lose their livelihoods.

But it seemed the best bad alternative. The sun would melt and soften the snow, saving $30,000 a day.

"We didn’t say we’re going to shut the park down" for the season, Wenk said. "But it will have real impacts."

At parks, military bases and federal agencies across the country, managers such as Wenk are weighing choices being forced by the budget reductions known as sequestration.

"Everybody says, ‘We want you to run the park like a private business,’ " he said, referring to the 5.1 percent cut he must make over seven months, which will feel a lot bigger. "Well, here it is. The impact is 9 percent."

Early Monday, he sat in regulation khakis in the brown armchair in his office, five miles inside the park, 2,174 miles from Washington. The temperature outside was 3 degrees. He looked over a long list of calls and meetings on his schedule to make it official that plowing would not start on time.


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He dialed the governor of Montana.

"There’s a lot of misinformation out there that we are just doing this to make a statement about the effects of sequestration," he told Gov. Steve Bullock, D, walking him through his decision.

"That’s where we are, sir," Wenk said.

Bullock thanked him for the briefing. Then things got messy.

By midday, a news release had gone out, and the angry while-you-were-out slips were piling up. Tour guide Rusty Cole’s was at the top.

"He’s mad as hell and not buying your argument," read the message.

"Rusty should call his congressman," Wenk said in frustration, rubbing his eyes.

And Cole did. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., returned his call that night.

"He said the delayed opening is not a done deal," recounted Cole, who is furious that park officials are slashing two weeks from his 20-week season.

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