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The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, backed by several other conservation groups, has strongly criticized Yellowstone National Park’s winter use plan to keep Sylvan Pass open between Cody and the park’s east entrance. The pass features 20 avalanche runs that must be knocked down by artillery shells fired from a 105 mm howitzer, at a cost of $325,000 per season. Weather permitting, high explosives are hand-dropped on the avalanche runs from a helicopter.

Conservationists Deplore Bombing of Avalanche Runs at Yellowstone

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, backed by several other conservation groups, has strongly criticized Yellowstone National Park’s winter use plan to keep Sylvan Pass open between Cody and the park’s east entrance.

The pass features 20 avalanche runs that must be knocked down by artillery shells fired from a 105 mm howitzer, at a cost of $325,000 per season. Weather permitting, high explosives are hand-dropped on the avalanche runs from a helicopter.

In recent years, only a handful of winter tourists a week have ventured through the pass into the remote reaches of East Yellowstone. The coalition objects not only to the low cost/benefit ratio, but also to the risk to park employees traveling past four avalanche runs to reach the howitzer gun site, which itself is exposed to avalanche and rock fall.

The death of park ranger Bob Mahn in 1994, east of Sylvan Pass, is as an indicator of the risks faced by park staff each winter under the avalanche runs, the coalition claims.

In separate letters to Yellowstone Superintendent Daniel N. Wenk and the Office of Management and Budget (the watchdog arm of the White House), the coalition and its allies noted, “Sylvan Pass is the only location in the entire National Park System where the NPS [National Park Service] undertakes highly expensive and highly risky winter avalanche mitigation operations solely to permit recreational use . . . averaging little more than one snowmobile per day.”

Although state transportation departments and ski areas on federal lands in the Rockies use howitzers to shoot down avalanches, Sylvan Pass is the only NPS operation to do so, leaving other avalanche-prone areas closed to the public.

The coalition has also expressed concern about unexploded shells – one of which was picked up in 1997 and carried by a tourist to the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center.

A car travels the newly plowed east entrance road over Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone National Park in the spring of 2001. Photo by Ruffin Prevost, WyoFile.

A car travels the newly plowed east entrance road over Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone National Park in the spring of 2001. Photo by Ruffin Prevost, WyoFile.

The letter to the Yellowstone superintendent came from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The letter to OMB came from those groups plus the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Don Bachman, president of the board of directors for the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, opposes keeping Sylvan Pass open in the winter, and offered written comments on the NPS plan in 2007. Should anything go wrong for avalanche gunners or subsequent tourists, he noted, rescue and medical help from the Wyoming towns of Lake or Cody would take hours to reach Sylvan Pass in bad weather.

Bachman, who has 40 years of experience in the Rockies and Alaska, studied the situation for Yellowstone and found it to be unique in his experience.

Fewer winter visitors in recent years mean a lower probability of anyone getting caught in an avalanche, he said. Increasing the number of visitors would simply increase the odds of such an accident occurring.

“But that’s balanced out by a high density of avalanche paths within one mile,” he added. While the low number of winter tourists means lower odds for tragedy, the high number of runs in one area means higher odds.

“You’re playing the odds,” he said, “and the Park Service is trying to improve the odds with avalanches on demand.”

The closest situation Bachman has seen to Sylvan Pass was when Glacier National Park officials refused permission in 2008 to Burlington Northern Railroad management to use explosives on park land for avalanche control. The railroad then switched from its strategic use of explosives, adopting instead prediction of avalanches coupled with adjustment of freight schedules.

Bachman said the railroad had much more money at stake than Cody’s snowmobile access to Yellowstone, even if winter snowmobile activity were to rise back into the thousands. “As far as I can tell, this was a political decision,” he said.

He called the decision to keep the Sylvan Pass open “completely discretionary.”

Feeling overwhelmed by snowmobiles, Yellowstone staff launched a winter use plan at the end of the Clinton administration, which eventually led to a ban of the machines from the park. The incoming Bush administration quickly rolled back the ban, and instituted a series of winter use studies—all of which said park resources were best protected by a ban on snowmobiles.

Caps were placed on how many snowmobiles and coaches could enter the park per day, and best-available-technology standards were adopted to decrease the noise and emissions of over-the-snow vehicles. As a way to increase safety and decrease the harassment of wildlife, guides were required for anyone entering the park.

This aerial shows the avalanche runs on the east entrance to Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of National Parks Service.

This aerial shows the avalanche runs on the east entrance to Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of National Parks Service.

Subsequently, the experience of snowmobiling in Yellowstone shifted away from thrill-oriented rides to cruises and sight-seeing, which more closely echoed what the snowcoaches were already offering.

The light, fast, noisy and smoky two-stroke snowmobiles were replaced by heavier, quieter and cleaner four-stroke snowmobiles, derisively dubbed “granny sleds.” Winter visitation numbers by snowmobilers steadily fell, while snowcoach passenger numbers rose.

The East Gate had 3,160 snowmobilers in 1996, a heyday that peaked in the winter of 2000-2001 with 4,183 snowmobilers. A historic low of 92 was reached by 2009, rising slightly to 168 last winter.

Snowcoaches from Cody brought 250 tourists into the park during the winter of 2007-’08, but that service has not operated for the last three seasons. For the past several years, the town has had only one snowmobile vendor.

Coalition members point out that Cody’s hotel tax revenues are up despite the snowmobiling downturn at the park. Figures from the Wyoming Department of Revenue show that Park County’s lodging tax collections for the last five winter seasons increased from $80,364 in 2006-2007 to $103,459 in 2010-2011.

During that same period, the number of snowmobiles entering Yellowstone through the East Entrance declined from 209 to 115 per season. Snowmobilers seem to have shifted their attention from Yellowstone to the numerous trails in the nearby national forests, where two-stroke snowmobiles are still welcome, the coalition argues.

“The National Park Service’s 2009 winter use plans have displaced snowmobiles from Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway onto adjacent national forest lands in Wyoming,” according Bradley Hill, trails program manager in Wyoming’s Department of Parks and Cultural Resources.

Yellowstone’s most recent environmental impact statement, released a couple months ago, reached the same conclusion as its predecessor of two years earlier concerning Sylvan Pass: Risks could not be fully mitigated and closure of the pass was viewed as the safest option.

Sylvan Lake in Yellowstone, May 2006. Photo by Shiras Rajendran, Wikimedia Commons.

Sylvan Lake in Yellowstone, May 2006. Photo by Shiras Rajendran, Wikimedia Commons.

Even so, Yellowstone officials have opted for keeping Sylvan Pass open. This contrasts to a 2007 decision by Yellowstone officials to close the pass because of accident risk and budget concerns.

Park managers then believed that opening Cooke Pass to automobile travel would be a possible alternative route for Wyoming visitors in the winter. That decision sparked controversy, and the next year political pressure was brought to bear from Wyoming and Washington during closed- door negotiations. Park officials soon announced the pass would be kept open.

Wyoming politicians from the governor and legislature up to the state’s congressional delegation have lobbied vigorously to keep the pass open, to keep the number of snowmobiles up, and to push back against NPS proposals to mandate the use of guides for snowmobile groups.

Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber supports keeping the pass open, and has sent a letter to that effect.

Claudia Wade, director of the Park County Travel Council, wrote in an email that good snowfall and the second year of a tourism promotion program emphasizing special winter events have brought more tourists to Cody and Park County. “We are seeing more folks from outside the area attending,” she declared.

Brodie Farquhar, who has covered the West for decades as a specialist in resource journalism, lives in Casper, Wyoming.

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23 comments

  1. Yellowstone Park administrators—and none other—have been strangling Sylvan Pass snowmobiling in the crib for years. Now they are asking your permission to kill it. It is not justifiable homicide, in spite of what you are selectively shown here and elsewhere, textwise and argumentatively.

    The YNP managers have sold out completely to the external vested interests of the enviro groups and their own Machiavellian internal schemes that really don’t fit the physical situation with Sylvan Pass. This entire situation was conceived and amplified wholly from arbitrary and capricious dogma. It wasn’t hard at all for the Suzanne Lewis administration and her Prime Minister John Sacklin ( YNP Planner) to go totally onboard with the flimsy obtuse arguments presented by the conservationists.

    As long as you realize the Park Service has two sets of rules and regulations…one for the Public to strictly adhere to, under threat of criminal penalties , and the other for their own purposes where the NPS personnel administratrively break their own ‘public’ rules routinely.. And their regs definitely go in opposite directions with respect to Sylvan Pass, in all seasons, not just winter. The situation with Sylvan Pass and its management is a classic example of lousy civil service —and even corruption , collusion, and conspiracy, although those are much harder to prove. But they exist.

    About 400,000 vehicles per year travel over Sylvan Pass. The possibility of a dangerous happening up there is always present. It’s called ” being in the mountains”. Yet we just spent $ 28 million rebuilding the East Entrance Road, making it much wider and safer, including the stretch over Sylvan . For what —so the bitchy Ranger can close it on a whim when a snowflake lands on her nose “? The East Entrance Road is all new wider safer—and open less hours than it was before ! Adminstrative closures. Yet the Park Service has relocated new personnel to live yearround at the East Entrance …built new residences and buildings and maintenenace facilities. It used to be no ranger or winterkeeper, then just one ranger ( Bob Mohn ), then Bob and his wife Grace. Now it’s a whole platoon of nitwits in new housing. THEY still need to get back to headquarters in winter: Lake Ranger Station 22 miles in from the East gate over Sylvan , so the Park Service people will always be using Sylvan regardless. Just not the public. They think the public is stupid and incompetent and a dangerous lot , or something. When actually , it’s them , the Park Service who are incompetent, overprotective, risk-aversive wimpy non-mountain folk ( but with college degrees). Sylvan Pass is being held hostage by academic wimps.

    If Yellowstone insists on closing Sylvan in the winter for the threat of avalanches, they must also close it yearround regardless for all the other threats, too. Close it altogether. By their own reasoning: interference with wildlife; disruption of solitude ; physical dangers ; severe weather situations ; pollution from the thousands of Harleys and diesel tourbuses that traverse it; prime grizzly habitat.

    The hypocrisy and duplicity of Yellowstone’s management of Sylvan Pass is egregious, far beyond any words I can put to it..

    – written by someone who first went over Sylvan on a prototype doubletrack snowmobile in 1963. I pretty much gave up on snowmobiling in the early 70’s, but not because of teh danger or ugly smelly loud machines…I just didn’t want to be around the disgusting loud smelly people driving them. But that is no reason to deny the snowmobling public and winter recreationist the opportunity to enjoy Sylvan Pass in winter. They will gladly accept the risk. The reason so few snowmobiles use Sylvan Pass these days is due ENTIRELY to the Park Service trying to kill East Entrance mechanized winter travel altogether, and almost succeeding. But it really doesn’t fit the situation on the ground at all. Sylvan Pass has been bastardized by made up misconceptions and the rotten policy resulting from those unjust justifications.

  2. I was the Lake Hotel winterkeeper in YNP from 1975-81, and keeping the East Entrance open for snowmobiles has always been ding-dong nonsense. It’s all about bureaucracy.

    The East Entrance was not open in winter in 75/76 or 76/77. The NPS staff consisted of one (1) district ranger at Lake, and one seaonal ranger at the East Entrance to keep out bubbleheads on snowmobiles.

    Then the NPS decided to promote snowmobiling. More staff at Lake, especially maintance personnel to keep Sylvan Pass open. More staff at the East Entrance. Of course snowmobilers went bonkers in the park, so the NPS increased the number of rangers to ride herd on snowmobilers going off road, chasing wildlife and generally behaving like, well, normal snowmobilers. Dolts. Lunatics.

    The bureaucracy grew until there were dozens of NPS winter employees at Lake and the East Entrance. The NPS is not keeping the East Entrance open today to serve the public or even business interests in Cody: it’s all about maintaining the size of the NPS bureaucracy in Yellowstone. Closing the East Entrance in winter would eliminate at least 20 NPS jobs. No Park Superintendent in his or her right mind would decrease the size of their staff.

  3. Probably the only way to level things out is to just close Yellowstone to everyone during the winter. It will give the wildlife some respite form the hordes of tourists and it will restore peace and quiet for the animals. Perhaps then everyone will be willing to share.

  4. I read the comments to this article and have to wonder where you people get your information. It has not been the NPS wanting to keep the east entrance open in the winter; it has been the tourism interests in Cody and at Pahaska Teepee and their friends in the WY political machine. Yes, we improved the east entrance road …to support summer traffic and because the WY political machine wants money sunk into the east entrance to make it harder to close it …winter or summer. Yes, more personnel are now stationed at or near the east entrance …it’s not because we want the head count there; believe me; we could damn well need those slots elsewhere in the Park. Those personnel are there because a few snowmobilers do cause problems and because the WY political machine wants them there to ensure that the east entrance gets its fair share of the ops dollars. Yes, there has been construction at the east entrance …because the WY political machine wants the money put there and it’s hard to bite that hand, both because it can starve you and because the other hand carries a club. Yes, we’re firm on keeping the east entrance open in the summer …because the number of visitors using that route in the summer justifies it. No, we don’t like the damn, noisy, inappropriate, and obnoxious motorcyclists any more than you do; but, you can see for yourself how hard it has been to rein the damn, noisy, inappropriate, and obnoxious snowmobilers. Did you want us to open another bloody political fight on a second front and still maintain the Park on our eroding budget? No, we don’t like having to keep the east entrance open in the winter …it’s outrageously and wastefully too expensive, not too mention hazardous, for the ridiculously inconsequential visitor usage it gets in the winter. We don’t have enough personnel to properly service the Park as it is; visitor numbers have gone up way more than the staffing has; and we’re using seasonals and volunteers to do what core professional staff should be there to do. So yes, no Park Superintendent in his or her right mind would decrease the size of their staff at this point. But, if you think having staff at the east entrance in the winter is a preferred staffing plan, you’re way off. Those “20 NPS jobs” that you claim are there are sure not worth the cost or the trouble of keeping that winter route open.

    You people miss the point. Keeping the east entrance open in winter is a waste. You lose all credibility when one minute you’re railing against government waste and the next minute you’re either blaming local staff for wasteful activities that are forced upon them by your own neighbors or, worse, actually joining your neighbors in calling for that waste yourself.

  5. When Ronnie Reagan & James Watt took power in 1980, they made a lot of noise about budget cuts for the NPS & Yellowstone. Superintendent John Townsley promptly scheduled presentations at the Cody Chamber of Commerce, Jackson Chamber of Commerce, etc., to let people know the only sensible thing to do was close the park in winter. A big chunk of the park’s budget was being used for a relative handful of bubbleheads on snowmobiles. Townsley got the results he wanted. Business interests and politicians went ballistic, and Townsley got even more money for snowmobiling. Bureaucracy in action. Keeping the east entrance open in winter is a waste, and the NPS is the #1 opponent of responsible park policy and spending. The NPS plays local politicians like a fiddle to get what it wants: a big bureaucratic empire.

  6. The roof fell in on the Fishing Bridge garage because YPSS (Yellowstone Park Service Stations) didn’t hire anyone to clear the snow. The winterkeepers for Xanterra did fine and so did the buildings they take care of: Old Faithful Inn, Lake Hotel, etc. Xanterra and YPSS are different companies.

    The NPS should close the road from the East Entrance to Fishing Bridge in the winter, close the road from South Entrance to West Thumb, close the Mammoth Hotel, ban snowmobiles, and try snowcoaches only on an temporary basis. No groomed x-c ski trails in the park.

  7. That may sound great to you Dave, but you are talking about a huge amount of money for a handful of people. Again, our country is on the verge of bankruptcy, we cannot afford it. Those folks who want a private winter ski trip need to go to a big resort and pay for it.

  8. If, in the early 1990’s , you had taken a look back at the growth of snowmobiling in Yellowstone the previous two decades, and projected it into the future whilst removing the bureaucratic blockages, , today we might see 10,000 to 20,000 snowmobiles using Sylvan Pass in a current year. Total winter season visitation to YNP in some recent years has approached the 150,000 level.

    It’s important to keep that projection of unencumbered snowmobile numbers on the table. It brings into sharper focus the process that the Park Service used to effectively quash the growth of winter recreation in that province. Had it been allowed to grow and mature of its own merits, and the Park Service had stepped up with its necessary manpower and enforcement —fulfill its mission and job description explicitly —- snowmobiling and snow coach tours over Sylvan Pass connecting to the rest of interior Yellowstone would be a vibrant economic force today. The bitter irony is, in the absence of growth in the snow machine access over Sylvan Pass, the Park Service went ahead and grew its employee and infrastructure base there anyway . Back in the early 90’s we had one Ranger at the East Gate and his wife, and a few thousand machines using Sylvan Pass. Today we have 8-10 personnel stationed at the East Gate in winter ( many more in summer, or bivouackers) but nearly zero snow machines. What is wrong with that picture ?

    When Ranger Bob Mahn died in 1994, he was nowhere near an avalanche chute, nowhere near Sylvan Pass proper. He was well down the mountain on benign roadway , and just drove off the road in a whiteout. Could’ve happened to anyone. When anyone tries to couple his solitary unique death to the danger of avalanches on Sylvan Pass, they are being wholly deceitful; mendacious. Mahn’s tragic death was a traffic accident, possibly involving poor operator judgment or complacency on his part, sicne there was no sign of a seizure or heart attack etc at the time. He screwed up and paid the price. Dont hang it on avalanches and elevate the threat because of it. It was a simple winter traffic fatality; no more no less

    It’s far more argumentative to make the point that for nearly 25 years, largely unsupervised snowmobile travel over Sylvan Pass in winter , resulted in NO Deaths and very very few ” incidents”. Far fewer than summer users protract . And those were years when snowpacks , storms, and temperatures were more intense than today , and the road was narrower with ridiculously flimsy guardrail ( 3/4 inch cable strung between rock posts. In harsher conditions with more snow and little or no supervision , still no snowmobilers got seriously hurt or died. And somehow they got past the avalanches coming and going.

    My own Bombardier Ski-Doo Alpine 69-R doubletrack with its high torque Austrian rotary engine was used to bust trail over Sylvan on many occasions. We were always cognizant of what the mountain and snow could do at any moment. We accepted the risk. We were rewarded with one of the great winter recreation experieinces to be had anywhere, and utterly without bureaucratic supervision , or utterly arbitrary and capricious rules.

    Does anyone here recall that the recent Governor Dave Freudenthal administration was strongarmed into buying a $ 350,000 state of the art road groomer for use explicitly by the Park Service on Sylvan Pass…a big bright yellow and orange widetrack juggernaut gifted to the East Gate by the State of Wyoming about 4 years ago ?

    I do not know when or why the Park Service and especially the Yellowstone administration turned against Sylvan Pass winter travel, but I’m sure it had little or nothing to do with avalanches and a lot to do with a Smokey the Bear hat full of craply ignorant snobbery , instead of brains and any real sense of civil service to the public.

    What I’m saying is I know Sylvan Pass can be easily negotiated in winter these days with modern gear on a better road . The Park Service’s percieved danger of avalanches is a made-up spectre not justified by the physical reality of Sylvan Pass. It’s a red herring; a poor conjecture become a worse policy.

    I would ask the Park Service for once to be truely honest with their intentions and just tell us in plain English why they don’t want the public using Sylvan Pass in winter, only their own people with their own M.O. because the avalanche argument is just so much yellow snow…

    If the East gate cadre and the Lake Ranger District and even the senior management at Mammoth still believes that Sylvan Pass is too dangerous to traverse in winter , or its economics are cost prohibitive , then we need new people in those posts.

    I can pencil out the numbers and show you how Sylvan Pass can be worked in winter. And the risks are acceptable. In fact, the risk of an avalanche is part of the winter experience, the thrill of it. That was proven across 3 decades of successful winter travel across Sylvan by the snowmobiling public with no deaths and few accidents. . So I guess it’s safe to say the Park Service is not only Risk Aversive, they are of the No Fun Allowed mindset. They are wimps, actually. The Park Rangers I grew up with would love to work Sylvan and keep it open in winter for themselves and the hearty public.

    I had to laugh at the assertion above by the ” Coalition” of former Park Service people et al when they cite the skewed statistic that Park County Wyoming’s collections of lodging tax are not suffering from the diminishment of winter use on Sylvan Pass. They conveniently fail to tell you that Park County Wyoming collects lodging tax in the entire north half of Yellowstone , including Mammoth and its grand hotel, and the real reason Cody’s lodging tax collections stay high is Cody innkeepers charge way too much for their rooms, and since the Bed Tax as we call it is a straight percentage. For the purposes of this discussion, that statistic needs to be ignored or at least seriously de-skewed. But it’s typical of the dogmatic disinformation surorund Sylvan.

    The issues surrounding Sylvan Pass spun out of control years ago, What we are talking about here today barely resembles the situation on the ground along the East Entrance road. It’s hard to believe it’s all on the same map.

    ——-

    I am no fan of snowmobiling these days. I could not care less if Sylvan Pass ever opened again to anyone in winter. The cynic in me says it would be cold justice if those Park Service employees that shelter at the East Gate station in winter were forced to drive the 350 miles around , one way , thru Cody and Laurel and Livingston Montana on I-90 to reach Park headquarters at Mammoth to get on a snowcoach down to Lake Ranger Station , 22 miles away by Sylvan Pass directly. Do you really think the Park Service will quit using Sylvan Pass in winter for their own purposes after they tell the public they can’t use it ? You don’t know the Park Service. Two sets of rules. Hypocrisy abounds.

    But what I do care about is the National Park Service and their cronies in ” conservation” jerking the public and denying public recreation opportunity for wholly unjustified excuses. Politics, not pragmatics. The disservice they are dealing the public

    It’s how your National Parks are run these days. Perhaps the new Superintendent in Yellowstone, Dan Wenk, is truely a broadminded man willing to do the right thing over the politically expedient thing. I’ve had promising conversations with him , as have others. The decision is on his desk in Mammoth. He would have to abrogate about 15 years of bureaucratic special interest dogma to reinstate Sylvan Pass snow travel forthwith , but I am not very hopeful.

    I no longer snowmobile so I don;t mind saying this: The situation with Sylvan Pass in winter is a farce. Shakespeare in the Park.

  9. Fenske- you are entitled to your opinion.

    You don’t want to know what I think of the ” Avalanche experts” and the ‘snow safety’ folks at the East Entrance of Yellowstone these days…from direct experience.

    I don’t see your named cited anywhere in the article. Do you know Sylvan Pass and have you ever ” worked” there ? Look at the photo accompanying this article…does that look like our ” best and brightest” at work doing avalanche hazard and snow safety work , top deck ?

    Are you also hypersensitive and risk aversive and so safety conscious that you forget why we might want to do this in the first place ? Are you a private expert or a public/ agency bureaucrat specialist

    Bottom Line : Sylvan Pass is doable by the public , regardless of what government poltroons might otherwise believe.

  10. When I start reading an article like this, and the proponents of this or that position themselves short of the truth, I tend to look at the rest of the article hyper-critically.

    Here we see:

    _________________
    In separate letters to Yellowstone Superintendent Daniel N. Wenk and the Office of Management and Budget (the watchdog arm of the White House), the coalition and its allies noted, “Sylvan Pass is the only location in the entire National Park System where the NPS [National Park Service] undertakes highly expensive and highly risky winter avalanche mitigation operations solely to permit recreational use . . . averaging little more than one snowmobile per day.”
    _________________________

    I live next door to the Olympic National Park, where the Hurricane Ridge Road is kept open through the winter with those “risky winter avalanche mitigation operations.” This is to keep the road open so that people can access the ski area at Hurricane Ridge as well as using the trail system for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

    Truth in advocacy is just as important to me as truth in advertising.

    Since we have avalanche control in the Olympic National Park, too, I wonder how many other NPS units are likewise engaged?

  11. I would like to remind those whose delicate senses are damaged by having other folks around that that could be a two edged sword. Everyone one does something that others can dislike. If we eleiminate everyone that someone does not like from Yellowstone, we may as well close the gates totally. Those who demand a “special experience” need to find a private provider to provide it…..usually for a lot of money. Public land demands acceptance of others since we all pay for it.

  12. The working contexts here.

    1. You can only ride ANY snowmobile or snowcoach on established highways and main roads inside Yellowstone. No off roading permitted , which is fine with me.

    2. Sylvan Pass/ the East Entrance Road is US Hwy 14-16-20. Highways 14 and 16 terminate at Yellowstone’s east gate , but US Hwy 20 magically reappears at the west gate in metropolitan West Yellowstone and continues all the way to the Pacific Ocean via Boise ID and Bend OR. The interior roads of Yellowstone are now being rebuilt to federal highway standards, same as primary highways, and in the case of Sylvan Pass it is already up to those standards. It is a structural extension of US Hwy 20 all the way to Fishing bridge junction and beyond.

    3. The East Entrance road was rebuilt at a cost of $ 28 million , finished just a few years ago. The past two seasons they have actually re-routed the section on top of Sylvan Pass away from the critical avalanche zone at the toe of the north slope to a much safer alignment on the south side of the neck of the pass, where the howitzer is also located.

    In other words, the Sylvan Pass road is now as good as any major primary highway anywhere not a divided 4-lane or interstate …full 32 foot width , wide shoulders, excellent subgrade and surface, etc. But paradoxically —or not — the highway over Sylvan Pass has been open less since it was rebuilt than before, in any season. Later opening date in May , earlier closing date in October or early November, much more frequent rolling closures and many more restrictions. We paid dearly to make the Sylvan Pass traverse so much better only to see its use curtailed by ‘ management’. it’s great road. I has immensely improved the safety factor for driving in all seasons and climates.

    4. The Park Service personnel are making great use of Sylvan Pass but NOT according the public that same privilege. THAT really irks me. They closed the East Entrance to the public on November 4 in the year 2003, a date chosen arbitrarily as much as anything. I was working construction inside Yellowstone that year and drove out to Cody for the last time on the day before Thanksgiving , November 23, having the magic combination that unlocked the various gates. The interior roads had been well maintained and plowed the whole month of November, just not open to the public. But they could have been , just as they could open much earlier in the Spring before another arbitrary opening date , set not by climate season or road condition but by a rigid bureaucratic timetable of convenience without respect for the public. What did I see the most of when driving from Old Faithful to the East gate via Sylvan Pass ? —full sized moving vans being pulled by semis…Allied, North American , Bekins , Red Ball. If THEY can travel the roads…

    It’s that ” Two Sets Of Rules” thing. The Park Service uses Yellowstone’s interior roads for 2 to 2-1/2 months longer than the public each year , routinely.

    5. As I mentioned in an earlier post, about 400,000 motor vehicles travel over Sylvan Pass in the summer season , all paying a pretty good sum for entry at a Yellowstone gate or by their regional or national park passes. There is absolutely NO justification for the argument that Sylvan Pass should have to
    ” pay its own way ” in winter; that somehow the miniscule numbers of snow machines should somehow be expected to cover the entirety of the winter maintenance costs and avalanche control. The figure cited is $ 325 ,000 per annum but the truth is nobody knows what it costs. Yellowstone cannot even tell you what they spend on any regular maintenance of any road up there, or for plowing open the Beartooth Highway or Cooke Pass. It’s like Pentagon budgetting.. a dollar number floating out there for discussion but not itemized or line itemed at any critical point. It’s bogus.

    Like I said, part of the deal for keeping the East Entrance open these past 3-4 years was the State of Wyoming had to make a pricey state-of-the-art $ 350,000 groomer/ emergency rescue vehicle available to Yellowstone for East Entrance work. It’s a beauty. They should use it more often. A gift from the good people of Wyoming .

    After all, the East Entrance Road/ Sylvan Pass is technically in Park County WYOMING. Park County and the State collect taxes inside Yellowstone all yearround..lodging tax, sales tax, fuel tax . And the yearround residents of the north half of Yellowstone are supposed to go vote at the Wapiti School halfway back to Cody.

    The state side of the equation of the Sylvan Pass conundrum has never been elevated to the level it deserves.

    I could go on , but you get the point. It’s really not about avalanches at all

    Bottom Line : you and me are not getting all the access to Yellowstone we are paying for.

  13. Bottom line is that the NPS has decided on a truly moronic and very expensive winter plan for the East Entrance and Sylvan Pass. In theory, Sylvan is open to snowmobilers. In theory, someone could have a snowcoach business that took people into the park thru Sylvan Pass.

    But there’s no telling when the pass will be open due to avalanche concerns, so it’s impossible to run a snowcoach business. People from Florida or Chicago could book a trip for January 27, but when they arrive the snowcoach operator might have to tell them, “sorry, the NPS closed Sylvan Pass due to avalanche conditions.” Why would anybody book with you? Book a trip from West Yellowstone and you know you can get into the park.

    Same issue with snowmobiles. Neither locals nor visitors from other states can plan on getting in the East Entrance and over Sylvan Pass, so snowmobilers make plans to get into Yellowstone from a different park entrance.

    Good thing that writing winter use plans for Yellowstone has become a career government job, because in the real world, the people who wrote the winter plan for the East Entrance and Sylvan Pass would be looking for work.

  14. … except the portion of the Cooke Pass road that would needs the heavy plowing in winter is mostly in Montana , Todd.

  15. Footnote: I haven’t been on a snowmobile in about 16 years.

    Absurdity abounds. I personally think allowing 45,000 Harleys , 20,000 diesel buses , motorhomes of any number and type ( but especially the 1-800-Rent-A-RV units with the National Geographic airbrush panel art driven by untrained primates) anywhere near Yellowstone is really absurd. “Pleasuring ground of the people” , my pink patooty. You cannot reconcile a wilderness sanctuary with any conveyance that requires a paved road and internal combustion. The road up Sylvan Pass should never have been built in the first place. But it is what it is.

    I’m glad I was able to take some long horsepacking trips thru the Park and surrounds when I was younger. I still sneak into the Park on coyote trails on occasion. It’s an old family tradition. I never knew my uncle Dean who was shot down in the Pacific at the battle of the Coral Sea. Dean and his buddy strapped on 9 foot wooden plank skis with beartrap bindings and Frankenstein boots, and wearing wool and duck canvas they skied over Sylvan all the way down to Jackson Hole , and back over the lake by island hopping , in the winter of 1935. They got the idea from an old friend of the family who was a renowned elk and sheep outfitter that used to stay out all winter in the Thorofare , and yes, Yellowstone , running fur trap lines on skis and snowshoes . He I knew as a kid growing up in Cody. We had real winters back then.

    My snowmobiling days were mostly tapering off before everybody else’s even got rolling. I did many many traverses of Sylvan Pass on ancient machines before the sport became popular . The White Witch and the Grim Reaper had plenty of chances to take me down in a hurling wall of snow off Hoyt Peak . Never happened. Truth be told, we made our own avalanches with .44 mag pistols just to watch them. You really don’t need an M-101 artillery piece to start the dance party …

    I’m inclined to think ” Avalanche Hazard and Snow Safety” expert is a bit of an oxymoron. Snow is just too amorphous and fickle to conform to bureaucratic fiat or academic rigor.

    The $ 300,000 spent doing a season of snow jobs on Sylvan is just what you say it is: a total waste. Just not in the context you portray it. We got along fine without the Park Service spending a dime or a man-hour on cornice banging. We knew the risks. We went anyway.

    The best solution is probably a simple signed waiver of indemnity as a condition for entering the Park in winter—at your own risk , codified — and costs almost nothing. Just don’t expect Ricky Ranger and a St. Bernard to come to your rescue when Mother Nature smotes thee and thine. Yer in the mountains…

  16. ” Avalanche Hazard and Snow Safety” expert?????

    I believe only you have used that term.

  17. -from your own post above:
    ” Dewey I have been involved in snow safety and avalanche hazard mitigation for over 25 years. ”

    – has the air of ” Expert” drooped over it. 25 years still doing it, so….?

    Sorry if I misquoted. So many words.

  18. No apologies required, just keeping things clear.

    Don Bachman (quoted in the above article ) is an expert.

    I am a damn good at my job and people try and hang “expert” on me at times.

    I prefer to say I am damn good at my job. 😉

  19. Dewey, I realize a part of the road is in Montana, but I have been told it is too far for Montana to take care and Wyoming should keep the road open even though all of the money would flow into Montana, not Wyoming. I don’t know if that is actually the case or not, but it doesn’t look like anyone is going to keep it open at this point.
    Again, the American taxpayers should not be expected to keep the park open for the few folks that will be allowed in.

  20. Well put Dewey. I agree with what you had to say. You are correct. Once the 900 lb gorilla gets his foot in the door its hard to shove him back out. Same problems we are having with the Endangered species act. Once they set a target, then they start setting moving targets, which go on and on and on and then they start funding the environmentalists to fight it in court so they can set priority and agenda.

  21. Don Bachman says he’s been assured by the NW Avalanche Center that there is no avalanche control for the Olympic NP. He further cites the Glacier NP DEIS thusly: The DEIS confirmed (DEIS Pg. I-15) hand charge explosive use in Mount Rainier in 1999 during an exceptional circumstance, and for opening of Tioga Pass in Yosemite NP.
    So Sylvan Pass is the only NP property that has regular avalanche control.

  22. Todd— how would you explain away the taxpayer expense in recent years of upscaling the East Entrance Ranger Station to accomodate many extra employees—including winter residents and winter temps , whether any public folk are using Sylvan Pass or not ?

    They’ve built new residences and shops and facilities that did not exist back during the heyday of a few thousand snowmobies on Sylvan , when only one Ranger and his wife actually wintered over there. Those NPS personnel are using , grooming, de-avalanching Sylvan Pass whether you or me get to or not , according to their whims. They are a detachment of the Lake Ranger District 22 miles away by the East Entrance Road directly , or 360 miles the long ways around by highway plus 50 more miles of over-the-snow travel inside Yellowstone to get to ” headquarters”.

    Taxpayers are paying a lot of money for Sylvan operations in winter , regardless, but not getting much in return , are they ?

    The whole Sylvan Pass management situation would fit well in a modern revision of “Alice in Winter Wonderland”.

  23. Dewey, I would describe it as typical bureaucratic stupidity. They were already shutting out local family snowmobile users, and had no intention of letting them in. They spent a lot of money on residences for workers getting paid full time for questionable part time work….and at a time when they scream about not having enough money. It is everything we have come to expect from our “public servants”. We don’t agree on much, but we sure seem to on this.