CHEYENNE — Gov. Matt Mead says he’s open to possibly arranging for the Wyoming Department of Transportation to plow roads inside Yellowstone National Park this spring, provided that the state isn’t stuck with the bill amid the federal budget cuts that have delayed plowing.
The governor’s office has been conferring with Cody and Jackson officials to get state plows to Yellowstone and open up the park’s East and South entrances sooner than the dates targeted since the cuts took effect March 1.
Yellowstone, meanwhile, is amenable to raising its gates for WyDOT snow plows.
“Should we get a proposal, we just have to see about working out the details,” park spokesman Al Nash said Monday.
Cody and Jackson aren’t opening their checkbooks just yet, however.
Another option would be a fund drive among Cody Country Chamber of Commerce members. The chamber was awaiting word from the governor’s office to proceed, Executive Director Scott Balyo said.
“We’re kind of waiting for two pieces. One, yes this can be done. And two, here’s how much it’s going to cost,” Balyo said. “It’s going to have to be done pretty quickly. We’ll only have a handful of days to pull that together.”
Park officials decided that relying more on warming temperatures to do snow removal this year was one of the less disruptive options available to them to save money under the cuts in effect across the federal government.
Plowing was supposed to begin March 4 and has been delayed until March 18. The postponement is saving Yellowstone an estimated $30,000 a day, or a total of anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000, depending on the weather.
Depending on how much snow falls in the weeks ahead, park entrances originally scheduled to open in early May now aren’t expected to open until mid-May. That worries local businesses owners looking forward to the start of summer tourist season.
“It’s truly surprising. I think we should do a little bit better than that,” Jackson Mayor Mark Barron said.
Barron said he planned to discuss plowing options with his town manager, the Teton County Commission chairman and the executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. He suggested that a bigger priority is pay increases for his employees, who haven’t gotten raises in four years.
“We intend to budget a compensation package for our staff, who have been incredibly patient,” Barron said.
Cody officials, meanwhile, were looking to their local Chamber of Commerce to first determine how much plowing might cost.
“Once we kind of know what target they’re trying to fund-raise for, then our City council will determine if there’s any funds that could be released for the project,” said City Administrator Jenni Rosencranse.
Current costs for mountain snow removal in Wyoming range from $4,400 in the Big Horns to over $17,000 in the Snowy Range, according to a letter Friday from Mead’s chief of staff, Kari Gray, to Barron and Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown.
“WyDOT believes its average costs are pretty close to that of the National Park Service on a per mile average in similar terrain. It estimates that its projected costs to assist with the Park factoring in travel and per diem will be somewhat higher,” Gray wrote.
The department would need anywhere from two days to a week to activate its crews and would be able to help the Park Service if it got local funding to do so, she wrote.
Plowing the Chief Joseph Highway and western portion of the Beartooth Highway to Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance near Cooke City, Mont., also remains an option. The Beartooth is one of the few highways outside a national park or monument that the Park Service maintains.
The governor has decided that using state money to plow for the Park Service is not an option.
“He’s thought this through. He realizes that not having Yellowstone open on time does have an impact up there,” said Mead spokesman Renny MacKay. “But he’s frustrated by the way sequestration has been handled and realizes that if Wyoming starts to try to backfill all of the lost federal dollars in Wyoming, we’ll destroy our own budget.”