Yellowstone gets real about budget cuts
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
"We're here all day, hoping someone comes in for a cup of coffee," said Jan Gaertner, who owns Buns N Beds restaurant and cabins in Cooke City, Mont., population 300. "For us, $400 in a day in April is good."
At the Old Faithful visitor center, Rich Jehle said half of his six supervisor jobs are vacant and won't be filled, which will mean fewer guided walks around the geyser and other attractions.
"We'll be spread thin, but we'll adapt," said Jehle, who oversees about half the park's visitor centers and interpretive programs.
On Wednesday, Wenk was 90 minutes into a meeting with his managers to decide which seasonal employees would not be called back and how the park would adjust to permanent vacancies, when the Wyoming governor's office called.
The governor was getting complaints about the opening delay.
And Cooke City residents in particular were in a civil war. Cooke City sits on an eight-mile section of highway outside the park's northwest entrance that's usually plowed by the Park Service, opening access to eastern Montana. Wenk offered to plow the road first, but the snowmobile industry balked: Paved roads mean less business. Now the plow crews won't arrive until the end of May, angering other businesses who want the road cleared.
Gov. Matt Mead, R, organized an emergency conference call for Wednesday to figure out whether Wenk could reverse his decision or whether there was any other way to open the park on time. About 20 mayors, tourism and business leaders, and state transportation officials dialed in. Mead was asked whether the state would plow the roads in Yellowstone.
It was an uncomfortable spot. A state bailout of the federal government to help his constituents? Wyoming has just sliced 6.5 percent from state spending while raising the fuel tax a combination of new revenue and cuts that Washington can't seem agree to.
"It's a bad message for Wyoming to say, Yellowstone is not open, call back later," Mead said in an interview. "But do I ask that state resources step in to cure a large federal screw-up?"
His answer late Friday: No. His office announced that the state would provide labor and equipment but will not "backfill federal dollars lost through sequestration." That means the park communities must pay for the plowing.
Local leaders said they are trying to raise the money. But every day causes more delays.
Wenk is already thinking about next year, when he said he will be forced to consider closing the park in the winter. Sequestration, he thought, is here to stay.