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White House, experts clash over policy for Yellowstone

The National Park Service wanted to close a section of Yellowstone National Park in winter because of the risk of avalanche. But the White House sided with businesses that want it open. The National Park Service wanted to close a section of Yellowstone National Park in winter because of the risk of avalanche. But the White House sided with businesses that want it open. (maura longden/national park service via Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jim Drinkard
Associated Press / July 27, 2008

WASHINGTON - The National Park Service wanted to close a section of Yellowstone Park in the wintertime because of the risk of avalanche.

No way, protested businesses in Cody, Wyo., that wanted to promote more tourism.

The spat did not stay local for long. It ended up in Washington, where the White House intervened late last year and sided with the businesses, according to officials familiar with the fight.

A final decision, announced by Park Service regional director Mike Snyder, will keep the park's eastern entrance open to snow-going vehicles throughout the winter. The cost to taxpayers could run into the millions of dollars for a decision to accommodate a small number of tourists.

"This clearly falls into the basket of politics and the administration trumping science and what's best for the national park system," says Tim Stevens, who manages Yellowstone issues for the National Parks Conservation Association, a private watchdog group. "It clearly shows political manipulation."

The Park Service had studied the winter closure issue for a decade, beginning in the Clinton administration. The agency was poised last fall to issue a decision that would close that part of the park for three months of the year.

But in November, just as a crucial ruling was to come out, an official in the Park Service's Washington headquarters called Yellowstone and asked that key sections of the document be faxed for review by nine White House officials, including policy advisers to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, said two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals. Cheney is a former Wyoming congressman.

The episode fits a pattern of complaints by government scientists and specialists who contend the administration frequently has overruled their work and imposed politically driven policies that benefit powerful economic interests, on issues from global warming to endangered species. For example, the administration rejected scientific advice in loosening air quality standards for ground-level ozone and soot, and ignored advice to control greenhouse gas emissions.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the consultation between the Park Service and the White House "is standard practice." He added, "We don't comment on those internal deliberations. The Park Service rendered [its] decision after taking into account all pertinent factors."

The eastern entrance to Yellowstone is along a road that runs from Cody into the heart of the park through Sylvan Pass, a steep-sided hollow that in the winter is at severe risk for avalanches. For years a dispute has simmered between the Park Service and the business community over whether to keep the pass open to vehicles such as snowmobiles and snow coaches when the avalanche threat is highest, December through February.

For several decades, the route has been kept accessible with a practice commonly used for mountain highways and ski areas, but which is unique in the park system: using explosive charges dropped from helicopters or shells fired from a howitzer to dislodge threatening snow.

But there are problems with this solution. They include unexploded munitions left in the park and the threat to crews that have to cross numerous avalanche corridors just to get to the howitzer emplacement.

To come up with a policy for Yellowstone, the Park Service set in motion an environmental impact study and a separate risk assessment, and both came to the same conclusion late last year: It would cost upward of $3.5 million to safely keep the route open and it would not be cost effective. Just 463 visitors entered the park last winter along that route, which would work out to roughly $8,000 per person.

"Talk about a bridge to nowhere," said Stevens, referring to the infamous plan to build an expensive bridge in Alaska to a tiny island village.

The money would have gone to buy expensive snow transport vehicles, build a safety berm behind the howitzer to protect it from avalanches, and construct a concrete bunker and warming hut to protect park rangers on avalanche patrols.

Of seven policy options presented in the environmental study, the government's "preferred alternative" was to keep the route closed whenever conditions are ripe for avalanches. A draft rule dated Sept. 13 said the Park Service had "determined that there is no reasonable way to mitigate the danger to employees and park visitors." Closing the pass in winter, it said, would mean only a "minor" impact on the area's economy.

As soon as that intention became known, protests erupted from the Cody business community, which believes closing the pass will kill its efforts to develop winter tourism. A group calling itself "Shut Out of Yellowstone" got more than 500 people to attend a public meeting on the subject, and got the ear not only of their own representatives in Congress but also of senior officials in Washington.

A new draft of the rule dated Nov. 10 still included language about closing the pass. But an unidentified official's handwritten marginal note asked, "Sylvan Pass, should we adjust this language to open door to collaborate and adaptive mgt.?" - the first indication that the decision might be changing.

When the Park Service published its policy on winter use of the park 10 days later, the idea of shutting down the pass in winter was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the agency created an additional step in the decision process: a task force largely of representatives of local business and political interests to further study what to do about Sylvan Pass. To conservationists, the move seemed clearly designed to reverse the recommendations of the experts and professional managers.

On June 4, after a series of private meetings, the task force announced its decision to keep up the use of explosives to keep the pass open in winter. That was the recommendation ratified last Monday by Snyder, the Park Service regional director.

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