On Tuesday, March 1, Yellowstone National Park was bombed by the National Park Service in Yellowstone with essentially the same mix of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel oil that Timothy McVeigh used on Oklahoma’s Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995.
The bombing, by Bozeman-based Carisch Helicopters, was part of a 20-target pilot program to trigger avalanches before they have a chance to become dangerous, according to Yellowstone’s East District Ranger Steve Swanke.
The bombing program is currently being considered for avalanche management in Glacier National Park as well.
Swanke says the program will cost an estimated $285,000 a year, which is more expensive than the park’s past use of a howitzer gun for avalanche control, but bombing will be safer, Swanke says, since the howitzer occasionally left undetonated explosives outside of the target area; the new explosives are double-capped and double-fused for backup detonation.
“We’re going to have a high degree of accuracy with these helicopter-dispensed explosives,” Swanke says. “In the past, we’ve overshot targets and put [howitzer] rounds where we didn’t aim them for, such as ridge lines.”
It’s common for ski areas to use explosives to preemptively trigger avalanches for skier safety, and Swanke says that aerial drops have been used by both the Wyoming and California departments of transportation. Systematic bombing is new to national parks, however.
“I’m not aware of it being done anywhere else,” Swanke says. “We’re calling it a pilot program.”
Avalanches have killed six people in Yellowstone’s history, Swanke says, most of them in the backcountry. The new program, however, is aimed at enabling safer travel through the park’s eastern gate near Cody, Wyo., which received 366 visits in the month of January, according to the National Park Service Visitor Report—a tiny amount of traffic compared to that seen by Yellowstone’s other open gates.
Despite the low usage, Swanke says, the eastern gate is invaluable to park employees who travel to Cody for movies, lattes and groceries.
Amy McNamara, national parks director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental nonprofit that advocates sustainable land-use practices around the park, says bombing will have an intrusive impact on wildlife, not to mention the park’s soundscapes.
Swanke responds that explosives will not be dropped when wildlife is in the area, though he concedes that the noise of the explosive drops is “the cost of doing business.”
Glacier National Park is considering a similar program along the Route 2 corridor between Marias Pass and Essex, where 15 Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight cars were derailed by an avalanche last winter.
Within the Great Northern Environmental Stewardship Area—a group composed of representatives of Burlington Northern, the Park Service, the Forest Service, Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Montana Department of Transportation, Flathead County and others—BNSF is advocating the use of explosives to make sure more freight isn’t lost to falling snow.
“At a point where there’s a significant avalanche potential, BNSF’s preferred method of hazard mitigation in unprotected avalanche paths will be based on the use of explosives,” says Seattle-based BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.
Chief Ranger for Glacier National Park Steve Frye says the park could obtain a special-use permit this year to bomb without an environmental impact statement, but only in the case of emergency. Frye says any bombing area would be scanned for wildlife before explosives were dropped, and that any wildlife found would be hazed out of the area.
Steve Thompson, Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, remains skeptical. Emergency avalanche conditions, he says, are typically concurrent with whiteouts: “In those conditions, you can’t see 10 feet. How are you going to see if there’s wildlife that you have to haze?”
Frye says the issue boils down to public safety.
“I think that once people understand the safety measures and the effort to which the agencies are going to assure that any environmental impacts are mitigated to an acceptable level, and once they understand the consequence of derailment, whether to an Amtrak train with passengers or a freight car with commodities that could spill into the streams and rivers of the area, the wisdom of some form of hazard mitigation will become apparent.”
Thompson agrees, but notes that other avalanche control options exist. The method Thompson describes as most environmentally friendly is the construction of more snow sheds—reinforced half-tunnels to protect roads and rail lines from avalanches.
But Frye says snow sheds are extremely expensive, typically costing $7,000 per linear foot, translating to $1.4 million for just 200 feet of roadway or railway protection.
Swanke sees a similar drawback to using snow sheds in Yellowstone: “Snow sheds would be part of a long-term plan to consider, but they’re extremely expensive,” he says. “Millions of dollars.”
Thompson thinks that in Glacier, much of the potential snow-shed cost should fall to the railroad.
“For me, cost is not a deterrent,” he says. “We have a corporation making a huge amount of money. I’m not against them making money, but the reason this is suddenly an issue is that they’ve got that much more freight going across the line. Well, that means you’ve got more money, so invest in the infrastructure and spend the money. If there are technical reasons why bombing the park is preferable, educate me, you know? Make the case.”
Burlington Northern posted a net income of $791 million in 2004. Though BNSF declined to release data on the financial impact of last year’s 15-car derailment, Melonas will say that the avalanche created a costly 15-hour shutdown of one of the freight carrier’s main lines.
Thompson estimates that “to do the job right” with snow sheds in Glacier would cost about $30 million—no small amount for a National Park Service already facing a $5 billion deferred maintenance backlog. If Burlington Northern was willing to chip in, such a cost might become manageable, but as it stands now, the railroad appears more inclined to support bombing in Glacier than to invest in a more permanent solution.