Private funds help open Yellowstone roads in time for season
OLD FAITHFUL, Wyo.
OLD FAITHFUL, Wyo. May 10 (Reuters) - Snow removal could hardly be considered a glamorous government function, but it was cause for celebration on Friday in Yellowstone National Park as dozens of state, local and federal dignitaries gathered to mark the on-time seasonal opening of the park's roads.
After federal budget cuts known as the "sequester" delayed annual snow plowing efforts by the National Park Service, two small Wyoming towns on the fringe of Yellowstone organized a private fund-raising drive that helped cover the cost of clearing the roads.
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead joined Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk and others at Old Faithful Lodge on Friday to celebrate a cooperative effort that helped erase the park's most visible effect of federal budget cuts and marked the opening of all major roads within Yellowstone.
Mead approved a plan in March that allowed roughly $125,000 in mostly private money to pay for Wyoming Department of Transportation plows and for workers to clear portions of the east entrance road from Cody and the south entrance road from Jackson.
While most July and August visitors would not be concerned whether roads were plowed on time in May, the local funding assist meant that other "ripple-effect" cuts to visitor services would not be necessary, Wenk said.
Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park are major attractions in Wyoming, helping to draw nearly 8.7 million annual visitors to a state where tourism is the second-largest industry, Mead said.
Local leaders had feared that a late start to the summer tourist season would result in lingering misperceptions nationwide that the parks were either closed or staffed by skeleton crews. The two parks provide a combined total of more than 10,000 jobs for the Jackson and Cody communities.
So far, advance bookings for Yellowstone are up over last year, said Rick Hoeninghausen, vice president for sales and marketing at Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park's primary lodging and activities concessionaire.
"Besides the economic end of it, there are also the people who plan their vacations around those dates," said Jerry Fritz, a Cody City Council member and Wyoming Department of Transportation worker who helped plow roads in Yellowstone.
That includes visitors like David Hanna, a chicken farmer from Magee, Mississippi, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and spent much of the next two years in treatment and recovery.
When he was declared cancer-free last year, he began planning a "dream vacation" to Yellowstone with his wife, Verna. Their goal has been to get into the park as soon as possible, which was May 3, thanks to the local snow-plowing efforts.
"It's just amazing. I've never seen anything like this," Hanna said last week during his long-awaited trip as he looked out over still-frozen Yellowstone Lake and a steaming fumarole at Steamboat Point.
The automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts imposed March 1 under a drastic deficit-reduction deal between President Barack Obama and Congress has meant cuts in services in other national parks across the country, including neighboring Grand Teton National Park.
An effort there to trim $700,000 from the last half of the fiscal year's operating budget could mean closed campsites, toilets and other facilities. But as in Yellowstone, local groups are stepping in to help.
There was no praise at Old Faithful on Friday for Congress, which failed to avert the sequester. Mead said the Washington, D.C. approach to such issues was one of placing blame, rather than resolving problems.
"But this ain't D.C.," Mead said with a broad smile as he signed a proclamation supporting National Travel and Tourism Week. "This is Wyoming." (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)