An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Cooke City, Mont. It is at the park’s northeast, not northwest, entrance. This version has been corrected.
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.”
Early Monday, he sat in regulation khakis in the brown armchair in his office, five miles inside the park, 2,174 miles from Washington. The temperature outside was 3 degrees. He looked over a long list of calls and meetings on his schedule to make it official that plowing would not start on time.
He dialed the governor of Montana.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there that we are just doing this to make a statement about the effects of sequestration,” he told Gov. Steve Bullock (D), walking him through his decision.
“That’s where we are, sir,” Wenk said.
Bullock thanked him for the briefing. Then things got messy.
By midday, a news release had gone out, and the angry while-you-were-out slips were piling up. Tour guide Rusty Cole’s was at the top.
“He’s mad as hell and not buying your argument,” read the message.
“Rusty should call his congressman,” Wenk said in frustration, rubbing his eyes.
And Cole did. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) returned his call that night.
“He said the delayed opening is not a done deal,” recounted Cole, who is furious that park officials are slashing two weeks from his 20-week season.
“They spend millions of dollars to operate Air Force One, and they can’t come up with some money to blow open the roads in Yellowstone?” Cole said.
But the sequestration law slices money from most budgets across the government, including $136 million from the 398 national parks.
In 1872, the federal government saw to it that the spectacular landscape of 2.2 million acres, which is ringed by the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, was protected as America’s first national park. Today, Yellowstone country is a deeply conservative place, where government is regarded with great suspicion.
Just ask Wyoming’s lone House member, Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R), who applauded the $85 billion carved across the board in a letter to constituents.
“Instead of blindly filling empty desks,” she wrote last week, “federal agencies will be forced to consider which positions are crucial and make their decision based on necessity rather than luxury.”
In an interview, Lummis suggested that Wenk petition House and Senate appropriators for permission to take money from his capital budget to cover the cuts, an idea he said was not legal and would never get through Congress in time.
The late opening has further inflamed the area’s anti-government sentiment as small, rural communities that serve park visitors absorb the reality of the cuts. In the large scheme of 3.4 million annual visits, losing 50,000 seems small.