By Lisa Rein
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, the 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 open, fewer 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.”