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Sylvan Pass winter plan comes under fire

Sylvan Pass winter plan comes under fire

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sylvan Pass winter plan comes under fire
By MJ Clark - Wyoming Business Report

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A plan by the National Park Service (NPS) to spend a third of a million dollars each winter clearing oversnow travel through Sylvan Pass has come under fire from five nonprofit organizations.

The organizations sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) this week urging it to review what is being asked of taxpayers after a new NPS study reached the same conclusion as another agency four years ago.

That conclusion says that closing Yellowstone National Park's Sylvan Pass in winter would benefit health and safety, while keeping it open and managing it as a winter travel corridor involves risks that cannot be mitigated fully.

The OMB is the arm of the White House that seeks to assure sound use of federal tax dollars and mission-driven performance gains by federal agencies.

The letter sent to the OMB by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club states in part:

"A Yellowstone ranger was killed while performing a snowmobile patrol of the area in 1994. Since that tragedy, the National Park Service has repeatedly determined, including in a study released two months ago, that the travel corridor known as Sylvan Pass is inherently hazardous. Nonetheless, the Service has again proposed to keep Sylvan Pass open to winter travelers by triggering avalanches with a howitzer — at a cost of over $700 per visitor.

"Of the over three million visitors who enjoy Yellowstone annually, fewer than one in 6,000 use Sylvan Pass in winter. At a time when our national parks are contending with an annual operations shortfall of more than $600 million that is intensifying the challenge to protect the parks' natural and cultural resources and historic artifacts, it defies imagination that Yellowstone can afford to spend a third of a million dollars every winter detonating explosives so that fewer than 500 visitors can travel through an avalanche-prone pass. While some have argued that keeping Sylvan Pass open is justified by the snowmobiling it affords, only an average of 90 snowmobiles have traveled over the pass in recent winters. That makes the cost of avalanche control a startling $3,600 per snowmobile."

The groups noted that the risks and tax dollars involved concerning Sylvan Pass "is a stark exception within the National Park System."

And despite an NPS environmental impact study (EIS) in 2007 that pointed to the extreme instability of snow at Sylvan Pass and the possibility of avalanches on the roads, efforts by the state of Wyoming to keep the pass open were successful.

Then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal pointed out in a September 2007 letter to Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder, "If the issue is cost-per-visitor, then those figures for Sylvan Pass should be indexed to cost-per-visitor numbers at other national parks." Freudenthal said. "Given that half of Park Service acreage is in Alaska, many of them remote and infrequently visited, I doubt the cost-per-visitor for keeping Sylvan Pass open would even fall in the lower end of the high range."

However, an EIS released two months ago reached the same conclusion as the 2007 study: inherent hazards at Sylvan Pass cannot be mitigated fully and keeping the pass closed in winter is the safest option.

The full letter can be found online at: www.npsretirees.org.

Wyoming Business Report