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03112013 Scramble To Open Yellowstone Despite Cuts
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Scramble To Open Yellowstone On Time Despite Cuts

(Wall St. Journal)--Government and business leaders near Yellowstone National Park are scrambling to work out a plan to get the park open on time this spring after park officials said the new sequester budget could delay completion of winter snow removal by one to three weeks.

"Time is of essence," said Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who noted that tourism is the second largest industry in his state during a news conference Thursday. "Communities are already concerned about the loss of tourism."

The massive task, which would entail removing up to 10 feet of snow from certain high mountain passes in the park, illustrates the local implications of the federal sequester in the country's oldest national park.

The state of Wyoming is considering deploying equipment and personnel from its transportation department to plow park roads alongside the park service. Yet liability and cost concerns threaten to impede progress, according to the Wyoming governor's spokesman, Renny MacKay.

"There are a lot of moving parts," said Mr. MacKay, referring to the state, local and federal parties involved.

Yellowstone, which anticipated $35 million in federal dollars this year, is chopping $1.75 million from its budget by decreasing staff and curtailing the snowplowing season, which is mostly done by staff members who use bulldozers, snowblowers and snow graders. In the past, crews have swelled to 23 to 24 members. This year, there will be 13 people on the job.

Without the sequester, the plowing would have started March 4, with a planned opening date of May 3. The plowing now is scheduled to begin March 18, delaying the full opening of the park by up to three weeks. By waiting, park officials hope to harness the sun's warming power to melt and soften the snow, which then would take less time to clear. The park's delayed opening is a worst-case scenario, said Dan Wenk, the park's superintendent.

"The lens we look at this through was that we have to make sure we protect the park," said Mr. Wenk, noting that it costs more than $30,000 per day to plow the roads. By not plowing for two weeks, the park aims to save between $150,000 to $250,000. He later added that he supports the proposed private-public solution. "We are appreciative that the state recognizes the impact of visitors at Yellowstone. I hope it works out."

Scott Balyo, director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce in Cody, Wyo., expressed frustration with the delayed opening early in the week, saying the area will lose about $2 million in revenue for the first two weeks of delay. "A solution could have been found to avoid these."  But by Friday, he was upbeat. "Honestly I am really excited," he said. "It just shows what people can do in about a week's time when faced with a tough situation."

Tim Boyer, a 60-year-old auditor, said he would appreciate quick fix. He had put down about $5,000 for a late May trip to Yellowstone with his wife for their 25th wedding anniversary. Even though he bought travel insurance, the airline agent said the sequester doesn't qualify as an appropriate claim, and so the couple plan to spend part of their Yellowstone trip in Utah.

"We have done some [type of] trip every five years, and the money is a significant investment," he said. "We do not do lavish vacations, but this was planned."

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