Wyoming towns eye private funds to plow Yellowstone roads

CODY, Wyoming Wed Mar 13, 2013 11:58pm GMT

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CODY, Wyoming (Reuters) - With government snow plows idled by federal budget cuts known as the "sequester," small Wyoming towns on the fringe of Yellowstone are organizing a private fund-raising drive for this year's spring road-clearing operation inside the national park.

The bootstrap effort by small business owners in the local tourism industry is to include an online appeal for donations, allowing Yellowstone National Park fans around the world to chip in to help ensure the park opens on time.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead on Tuesday announced his backing for a plan that would allow for private money to pay for state Transportation Department plows and workers to remove snow along the east entrance road from Cody and the south entrance road from Jackson.

The National Park Service said last week that plowing snow from Yellowstone's roads would be delayed because of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts imposed March 1 under a drastic deficit-reduction deal between Republicans in Congress and President Barack Obama.

Spring plowing operations would otherwise have begun on Monday, the start of the first full week of March.

The newly announced two-week plowing delay will push back the traditional May opening by two weeks for entrances handling visitor traffic from Jackson and Cody, park service officials said. Those towns, each with fewer than 10,000 residents, stand to lose millions of dollars in early-season tourist spending.

During the first two weeks of May last year, nearly 12,000 visitors passed into Yellowstone through Cody's East Gate alone.

Access to the park's interior through three more entrances in Montana will be delayed for shorter periods by a late start in plowing, the park service said.

Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk has said he expects to save about $250,000 by delaying plowing until warmer weather. He is required to cut $1.75 million from his annual budget, with seven months left in the fiscal year.

Other savings will be realized by reducing the park's seasonal workforce, through travel and training reductions and by not hiring replacements for some departing permanent workers, Wenk said.

Cody Country Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Scott Balyo predicted the fund-raising effort would generate "positive press associated with accomplishing this for travelers" while contributing to "the larger national conversation" about fiscal issues.

Balyo and many business owners in Cody see their do-it-yourself plowing plan as a chance to show that their scrappy cowboy town, founded by frontier showman Buffalo Bill Cody, can triumph over the ugly fallout of Washington gridlock.

Yellowstone officials met with Cody business leaders Tuesday to discuss the logistics of plowing 28 miles of high mountain road between the park's East Gate and the interior Lower Loop Road at Fishing Bridge. Snow along the road's highest point, at 8,524-foot Sylvan Pass, can pile up 8 to 12 feet high.

Nash said park officials are open to plowing proposals from the state "no matter the source of funding," as long as a written agreement is in place to cover liability issues and other details. Park officials have also committed to staffing entrance gates and plowing any new snow if local efforts are successful, he said.

Elected officials from both communities have backed the plan but have yet to commit public funds. Mead has ruled out using state money, and the mayors of both towns have joined him in expressing concern over setting a precedent of covering federal costs in the park.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Prudence Crowther)

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