Is it worth $4 million to keep the Sylvan Pass open in winter?

[Friday April 25, 2008] The stakes were raised in Cody’s fight to keep the Sylvan Pass open in winter after Yellowstone National Park officials reported it would require an investment of $4 million — money Yellowstone Park officials are not willing or able to pay.

The Sylvan Pass is prone to avalanches and is often closed for that reason. Cody officials want the pass to be reliably open to spur tourism, but the numbers aren’t great: in the 2007-2008 winter season only 550 Yellowstone visitors entered via the East Entrance, which was closed 72 out of 82 possible days. Besides the avalanche dangers, the changing demographics of Yellowstone winter visitors may be impacting Cody-based access: the number of snowmobilers entering via Cody was down almost by half, and because of the distance and logistics it’s the most difficult for snowcoach travel.

It’s pretty clear Yellowstone officials don’t want to keep the Sylvan Pass open, and a quick review of the numbers tells why: last winter season it spent $298,806 on avalanche control. That’s $543 per visitor, a pretty steep amount. And while the $4 million estimate to keep the Sylvan Pass open is surely inflated — it includes $875,000 for a bunker/warming hut and $1.2 for eight remote-control avalanche-control machines — it certainly presses the point that the East Entrance is best remained closed during the winter season. The current method of keeping the pass open, which Park officials oppose extending, is to fire a howitzer from helicopters to preemptively cause avalanches, followed by a grooming of the road for snowcoaches and snowmobiles.

Talks will continue today (Friday) on the issue. But given the many other spending priorities within the Park and the lack of interest shown by Wyoming’s congressional representatives in obtaining funding for winter access, the future of the East Entrance doesn’t look good.

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