Political guns

Wyoming calls the shots on a pass in Yellowstone National Park

  • Park Service personnel in Yellowstone fire a howitzer to trigger an avalanche on Sylvan Pass in November 2008.

    National Park Service
  • A sign alerting vehicles to the danger of avalanches on Sylvan Pass

    National Park Service
  • National Park Service
 

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: