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Will the market do what Park Service couldn’t: shut down the East Entrance?

[Monday March 31,2008] Will the market end up doing what National Park Service officials couldn’t: close down the East Entrance during the winter? That is a likely outcome of the decision by the Park Service not to use howitzers to force avalanches, thus keeping the East Entrance open for winter access via snowcoach and snowmobile.

Cody officials would like to see the East Entrance open and maintained all winter, but the cost and the danger weren’t deemed to be worth it for a relatively small number of snowmobilers and snowcoach operators to access the Park. The numbers this past winter were certainly down. The number of snowmobilers entering Yellowstone National Park via the East Entrance was down by almost half, with 126 entering through February 2008, compared to 241 through February 2007. In fact, the number of skiers exceeded the number of snowmobilers entering the Park from the east: 134 through through February 2008. (That number, alas, was a decline from the 179 skiers entering the Park’s East Entrance through February 2007.) Snowcoach traffic was up dramatically, though, but admittedly it was starting from an extremely small base.

Next winter, there will no avalanche prevention, and operators will need to ensure the route is clear before sending through a snowcoach or snowmobiler. For private snowcoach operators, that’s a level of risk they probably are not willing to accept; not many tourists will plan a trip through Cody not knowing for sure if they can get into the Park. Now, we’re huge fans of Yellowstone National Park in the winter months, and riding via snowcoach is one of the most pleasant ways to see the Park. But we can’t imagine taking on this level of financial commitment (and remember, you’re paying for that first night in the Snow Lodge no matter if the snowcoach makes it or not) without knowing for sure whether the Sylvan Pass is open.

As always, it’s not a simple issue. Winter maintenance is always a debatable line item, and in this case no one wants to step up and pay the $75,000 needed to use a helicopter and howitzer to induce avalanches. Then there’s the safety issue: blasting huge firearms to clear snow isn’t recommended by the experts. There’s no clear solution to the problem, but we expect that without a Park Service commitment to keeping the Sylvan Pass clear, the market will decide access via the East Entrance just doesn’t make sense.

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