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Political guns

Wyoming calls the shots on a pass in Yellowstone National Park


Every day this winter, a special team of rangers in Yellowstone National Park begins work well before dawn. Some focus on gathering weather data to get an idea of what they'll face. Then two rangers  suit up in long underwear, heavy insulated pants, jackets and boots, neck gaiters and helmets. At first light, they set out on two snowmobiles, using the buddy system in case of trouble.

They coax their machines up a curvy, snow-covered mountain road -- sometimes through drifts and blizzards, with wind-chill factors of 30 below zero or worse -- to reach Sylvan Pass, an 8,530-foot-high gap between peaks that rise above 10,000 feet.

There, they assess the avalanche risk. Annual snowfall averages nearly 30 feet and the key stretch of road crosses at least 18 avalanche chutes. The rangers inspect snow conditions, dig pits for cross-sections and take other measurements. If they decide there's a substantial risk, they close the pass to snowmobile and snowcoach traffic. Then they bring out the explosives.

Mostly, they use a 105-mm howitzer positioned against a cliff -- Korean War artillery designed to function in the cold. Team leader Maura Longden says, "It's a very good weapon for our conditions."

Longden has to call out reinforcements to operate the gun; at least five rangers are needed. The designated "gunner" yells commands to the rest as they handle shells as big as three Aladdin thermoses. Each sequence ends with: "Ready to fire! … Fire!"

Sometimes, they drop explosives from a helicopter. By either method, they deliver the blasts precisely to make the avalanches thunder down. They use more machinery to clear the debris and groom the snow on the road. Then they reopen the pass to traffic.

The rangers speak of their "mission" as if they're in combat. Every step has a degree of danger. They work long hours in wild conditions and must traverse at least eight avalanche chutes just to get to the gun.

Avalanches have killed six people in Yellowstone over the years. None of those deaths occurred on Sylvan Pass, but rangers have been involved in near-misses there since they began bombing it in 1973. And one ranger died while checking conditions on the pass during a 1994 blizzard. He drove off the road, rolled down an embankment, got trapped under the machine and the snow, and suffocated.

The rangers perform this mission primarily in the name of winter tourism. The road through Sylvan Pass connects to the park's east gate in Wyoming. A trickle of tourists on snow machines flows both directions, from the bulk of the park to the east gate, and from the east gate over the pass to the bulk of the park. It's the only place in any national park where such aggressive avalanche control is used to clear the way for tourists on snow machines.

Many park staffers and avalanche experts think the mission is too risky, too costly -- at several hundred thousand dollars per winter -- and not in keeping with the National Park Service's conservation goals. If they had their way, the pass would be closed in winter. One expert says privately, "I don't think there's a Park Service person who thinks that flailing away at a mountainside with an artillery piece is what they were hired to do."

Headlines tend to focus on the other Yellowstone controversy: The prolonged legal battle that pits snowmobile-driving tourists and the businesses that rely on them against environmentalists fighting for wildlife, air purity and tranquility.

On Sylvan Pass, though, the stakes are higher. And the rangers are compelled to risk their lives not solely by the need to allow visitors to access the park, but also by the complex relationship that Wyoming has with Yellowstone. Though 96 percent of the park lies within the state's borders, Wyoming gets less than half of the park's annual tourist traffic. That leads many people in the state to feel both possessive about the park and yet somehow slighted.

Sylvan Pass has never handled more than about 5,000 tourist trips a winter, about 5 percent of the park's total snow-vehicle traffic. And the nine years of lawsuits over parkwide snowmobile traffic have caused the flow to decline, due to the tangle of judges' rulings and policy shifts. By 2007, the pass's winter traffic had dwindled to a few hundred tourists, and some businesses dependent on the traffic closed down.

Meanwhile, park bosses have explored the possibility of closing the pass all winter, and in a 2007 final environmental impact statement, they announced that the pass would be closed beginning in the 2008-09 winter.

But the interests determined to keep Sylvan Pass open were stronger than they appeared. The park's move instantly drew opposition from Cody, Wyo. -- the first real town on the two-lane highway downhill from the east gate. It's 52 miles away and has only 9,000 residents, but it retains the spirit of its founder, Buffalo Bill Cody -- a pioneer promoter of tourism, who staged Wild West shows around the world a century ago. On its Web site, the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce proudly calls the town "The Preferred Gateway to Yellowstone National Park."

The local newspaper, the Cody Enterprise, whose logo boasts that it was also founded by Buffalo Bill, fired off editorials charging that the Park Service exaggerated the downsides of avalanche control. It denounced the agency's plan as "punitive … obstructive … unprofessional … prejudiced … (using) bogus assumptions and manipulated material … a thoroughly dishonest effort … a real laugher were it not so serious for northwest Wyoming." One editorial warned that "the careers of some of those NPS officials closest to this scandal will suffer."

A grassroots group called Shut Out of Yellowstone sprang up, led by two well-connected Republican women, Carol Armstrong and Tonia Grdina; their party runs the local government and most of Wyoming. "The winter economy is so much more fragile," says Grdina. "It's very important to retain (park access) and build as large a tourist base as we can." More than 500 locals showed up for the group's biggest meeting, in the Cody Community Center auditorium in March 2007, where many vented their anger.

Cody's representatives in the Wyoming Legislature, including influential Rep. Colin Simpson -- son of popular retired U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson -- joined the fray. Colin Simpson, now the speaker of Wyoming's House of Representatives, led the Legislature to pass a unanimous resolution calling for the park to keep Sylvan Pass open. The whole state seemed officially unified; Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal took the same stand, as did the entire congressional delegation. And they had the ear of the highest Wyomingite in the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney. They told the Park Service: You'd better think twice about giving Wyoming the shaft.

The Park Service was armed with technical reports from avalanche experts, who said the paramount goal should be to "avoid negative avalanche-human contact," meaning to avoid having people killed by snow. But faced with political pressure, the agency blinked. It agreed to reconsider its decision by going through a process that appeared rigged. The so-called Sylvan Pass Study Group consisted of at least seven advocates for keeping the pass open, including Rep. Simpson and local politicians, and only two park representatives, including Superintendent Suzanne Lewis. They met repeatedly during 2007 and 2008. Often, no members of the public were allowed in.

"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."