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Yellowstone gets real about budget cuts

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"They spend millions of dollars to operate Air Force One, and they can’t come up with some money to blow open the roads in Yellowstone?" Cole said.

But the sequestration law slices money from most budgets across the government, including $136 million from the 398 national parks.

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In 1872, the federal government saw to it that the spectacular landscape of 2.2 million acres, which is ringed by the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, was protected as America’s first national park. Today, Yellowstone Country is a deeply conservative place, where government is regarded with great suspicion.

Just ask Wyoming’s lone House member, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R, who applauded the $85 billion carved across the board in a letter to constituents.

"Instead of blindly filling empty desks," she wrote last week, "federal agencies will be forced to consider which positions are crucial and make their decision based on necessity rather than luxury."

In an interview, Lummis suggested that Wenk petition House and Senate appropriators for permission to take money from his capital budget to cover the cuts, an idea he said was not legal and would never get through Congress in time.

The late opening has further inflamed the area’s anti-government sentiment as small, rural communities that serve park visitors absorb the reality of the cuts. In the large scheme of 3.4 million annual visits, losing 50,000 seems small.

But the ripple effect on jobs and tourism could means millions of dollars in lost income. The plowing delay also means that snow won’t be cleared until mid-June from the scenic Beartooth Highway, which straddles Montana and Wyoming outside the park. The National Park Service plows about half the the road.

"We have 90 days to make a living," said Sam Bolinger, 56, who leads whitewater rafting tours along the Yellowstone River from Gardiner, Mont., in the summer and grooms park trails in the winter. "If people get the impression they can’t get into the park, they just won’t come."

There was the hostile reaction from the mayor of Jackson, Wyo., 60 miles from the park’s south entrance, who told Wenk that anyone knows how to cut 5.1 percent from a budget without inflicting this much pain.

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"This is, with all due respect, an asinine decision," Mark Barron said in a conference call with business and community leaders. Jackson recently cut its budget by 22 percent, Barron said, "and we didn’t cut any services."

"This is a small cut in your budget, sir," Barron continued. "If I ran my business like this, I wouldn’t be in business long."

It was the day’s one moment when Wenk, a self-possessed and widely respected 60-year-old civil servant, got mad. He was acting Park Service director in Washington in 2011 when the top job opened at Yellowstone. He had been a management assistant to the park superintendent in the early 1980s, and he and his wife couldn’t wait to get back.

Wenk managed to contain his temper, though, telling Barron that Yellowstone’s $33 million budget is $3.7 million smaller than it was three years ago. He asked Barron whether the park should continue to stay open in the winter, when each visitor costs $55 vs. $10 in the summer.

When the call was over, Wenk and his deputy, Steve Iobst, wondered how one could slash 22 percent just like that.

As sequestration hit, the park was preparing for high season, closing the hotels and restaurants that serve its fewer than 100,000 winter tourists. Yellowstone in winter is a landscape of white, broken only by pine trees and half-frozen rivers. Clouds of steam from the park’s many geysers billow into the cold, while herds of bison forage. The only way around is by snowmobile, and that’s the tourist draw.

"We just saw a fox for the second time today," marveled Tina Don, visiting from Cedarhurst, N.Y., and warming up inside a concession trailer. "The same fox!" Her husband, Scott Dere, pulled out his iPhone and scrolled through his photos. A bison, an elk, a bald eagle. Don pointed out that her hot chocolate cost just $2.25 ("There’s no place in New York you could get hot chocolate for that.") and said the park should raise the price to cover the budget cuts.

By late May, the place will be humming with cars and RVs, campfires and hikers.

The small towns at the park’s edge have been closely following Washington’s budget wars. All roads to survival lead to Yellowstone.

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