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Yellowstone gets real about budget cuts

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"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.

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"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.

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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.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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