"Nine White House officials, including policy advisers to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney" reviewed the park's initial decision to close the pass, and some apparently called for a reconsideration, according to an Associated Press investigation that didn't identify the Bush advisers. "It was a jaw-dropper," says Tim Stevens, a regional representative for the National Parks and Conservation Association, which supported the decision to close the pass. "The makeup of the ‘study group' was completely skewed."
When the study group concluded last summer, regional Park Service Director Mike Snyder announced the decision: Sylvan Pass will be kept open in winter after all, using the artillery and helicopter when necessary. About three weeks have been shaved off the winter tourist season: The rangers will try to keep the pass open from Dec. 22 to March 1. And, in tune with the park planners' desire to reduce overall winter traffic, vehicle numbers have been slightly lowered to no more than 40 snowmobiles and two snowcoach trips per day.
The deal contrasts with another Park Service decision regarding avalanches. Glacier National Park officials announced last November that they will not use artillery to reduce avalanches that threaten a railroad's tracks, except in "extreme" situations where it's essential to save lives. But Glacier officials didn't have to contend with tourism businesses and Buffalo Bill's legacy.
This winter has been especially dicey: Amid wicked weather, avalanches around the West have killed at least 16 snowmobilers, skiers and other people. On Sylvan Pass, rangers have triggered avalanches on at least seven days, firing more than 80 artillery shells. At least once, they used a helicopter to deliver blasts. They've had to close the pass while conducting those missions, causing even more uncertainty for people outside the east gate.
"It's been frustrating," says Gary Fales, who runs Rimrock Dude Ranch, which has outfitted and guided snowmobile tours for at least 15 winters. He has only a handful of regular customers left, including some Army soldiers who come from Iraq every winter. "We haven't been able to count on anything."
The park bosses hope to make the Sylvan Pass mission safer by buying three new over-snow vehicles for rescues, ambulance and crew transport. They also want to install more concrete reinforcement for the howitzer position and a hut where rangers can huddle for warmth. But such safety measures could cost as much as $4 million, and it's not clear where the money will come from.
Asked about the risks rangers face, Longden speaks carefully. "I think we operate very safely," she says. "We have a very good, professional program." But, she adds, "It's never 100 percent safe. We know that."