Despite an estimated $1.3 million in budget cuts resulting from the sequester, Yellowstone National Park may not have to delay its opening after all. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead officially came forward this week with an offer: the Wyoming Department of Transportation will supply equipment and labor to plow the park’s roads, provided the communities of Cody and Jackson can raise the money to fund that work.
The announcement came just a week or so after Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk contacted both Mead and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock requesting help. Mead seemed downright eager to answer the call. Bullock’s office, on the other hand, rebuffed Wenk’s plea with not-so-subtle irritation.
“Yellowstone Park has been trying to get out of maintaining the federal highway since 1982—the same year their lawyers said it was the Park’s responsibility,” Bullock spokesman Kevin O’Brien wrote in a statement March 7. “We’ll continue to be in touch with Park management as they work through this problem, but we hope they find a solution that allows them to plow the highway in a timely fashion. Doing so would be good for tourists, good for Yellowstone and good for the communities surrounding and supporting it.”
According to a recent report from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, the Beartooth Highway saw 178,904 vehicles between May 31 and the end of September last year. An estimated 91 percent of those visitors were nonresidents. More than 200 surveyed travelers said they'd spent at least one night in Red Lodge.
In addition to its statement, Bullock’s office offered a 1991 memo from Curtis Menefee, the Rocky Mountain regional solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior at the time, outlining responsibility for maintenance of the Beartooth Highway (PDF below). In it, Menefee writes that “because it is a national park approach road, the National Park Service, until such time as it can transfer the responsibility, must maintain the road.” Those duties include posting signs and warning motorists of hazardous conditions as well as “the usual maintenance actions such as repaving, filling potholes, striping, and even reconstruction of the road.”
Ironically, back when Menefee drafted the memo, Wyoming was “adamantly opposed to assuming any responsibilities for the road or even agreeing that funds appropriated for maintenance of forest roads be spent on the Beartooth.” It appeared to legal experts at the time that “any solution to the dispersed responsibility that presently exists can only be worked out between the two federal agencies [the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service] and possibly the state of Montana.”
Mead’s acquiescence—combined with Bullock’s reluctance—seems to have turned that dated assessment on its head, at least until a more permanent solution for the sequester can be found.