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Wyoming locals pick up tab for Yellowstone snowplowing

Sequester cuts idled federal plows and threatened the park's opening day. Even though most here favor limited government, this isn't quite what they had in mind.

April 06, 2013|By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
  • A group goes snowshoeing through Yellowstone National Park. A delay in snowplowing could have hurt tourism, locals said.
A group goes snowshoeing through Yellowstone National Park. A delay in… (Hal Stoelzle, Rocky Mountain…)

CODY, Wyo. — For many, the federal budget ax that fell last month has meant a few nicks here and there. For Joe Kondelis, it's sliced a lot deeper.

After stewing for days, the 53-year-old opened his wallet and delivered a $2,000 check to the Cody Chamber of Commerce to help pay for snowplowing at Yellowstone National Park. It wasn't easy. Cash is scarce once Yellowstone shuts down for the winter.

But after automatic spending cuts idled the National Park Service plows and threatened to delay opening day for two weeks — two weeks that could cost his beer distributorship $100,000 in sales — Kondelis felt he had no choice.

"You live and die by the tourist market," he said beneath a framed picture of the Budweiser logo, which loomed overhead like a portrait of the family patriarch.

Fearing an economic disaster — people planning their vacations sometimes hear just the words "closed" and "Yellowstone" and there goes the whole summer — the chambers in Cody and Jackson Hole raised $170,000 to pay for the state to step in and fire up its snowplows. The work began last week and, barring a major storm, the park's east and south entrances will open on time in early May.

The story could end there, a happy tale of small-town pluck. Many in Cody are proud of how the community of fewer than 10,000 rallied to save the tourist season from sequestration, as the $85 billion in cuts are called.

"It kicked us right in the pants," said Mike Darby, a partner in the Irma Hotel, which was built in 1902 by "Buffalo Bill" Cody himself. "And thank God we rose up and kicked them back. We did."

But a weave of contradictions surrounds the episode, reflecting the tension between self-sufficiency and codependence, between these Westerners' stated desire for a smaller, more limited government and reliance on the services that people have come to expect from far off, little-loved Washington, D.C.

"We all want to cut the deficit but don't want to sacrifice the lifestyle that money makes possible," said Warren Murphy, a retired clergyman and one of the few avowed progressives in this deeply conservative part of a deeply conservative state. "Sequester is just a small sample of what you get."

Dan Wenk, the superintendent of Yellowstone, is the face of the federal government around Cody and his popularity underscores the truth that it's harder to dislike a neighbor than some faceless bureaucrat inside the Beltway. When the cuts hit, Wenk had to slice $1.75 million from his $35-million budget and do it with the fiscal year just about half-over.

He trimmed his payroll. He scaled back travel and training programs. Finally, he decided to idle the Park Service snowplows for two weeks, saving $30,000 a day and leaving it to the spring thaw to help clear more than 300 miles of roadway. The idea, Wenk said, was to ensure there was money left to keep Yellowstone open throughout the peak summer months. "We cut the budget in a way we thought was absolutely the least impactful," he said.

Locals were nearly unanimous in their praise for Wenk and the way he worked with community leaders and state officials to find a solution that got the plows rolling. It is a lesson, they said, that Washington should heed.

"We just talked it through," said Claudia Wade, marketing director for the county tourism office. "Everybody came to the table and said, 'How can we work this out?' Not, "Whose fault is it?'"

There are limits, however, to that goodwill. Wade and others insist the fundraising drive, or Park Service bailout, or whatever people choose to call it, was a one-time thing. "It was an important point that we'd only do it this time," said Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody chamber.

Even so, many worry about precedent. Kondelis, who works alongside his wife and two sons in their beverage business, explained why he contributed: "I believe in this community and we need to step forward like everybody else. But my biggest issue was … the politics isn't going to change. So next year, they're going to say, 'Oh, you guys figured it out, you guys came to the table, so this cut was good.'"

The relationship between Washington and the West has always been fraught. The region's proud creed of independence ignores the crucial role the federal government plays in its prosperity. At the same time, few things grate more than the presumption that a distant landlord can better manage the land than the people who live on it. (The federal government controls about half of the acreage in Wyoming.)

People in Cody are used to dealing with natural disasters, like the wildfires or heavy snow that occasionally close Yellowstone and sucker-punch the economy. But this crisis felt artificial, man-made, and thus avoidable.

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