CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A public-private effort to plow roads in Yellowstone National Park and open up two of the park's entrances on time this spring despite federal budget cuts reached a milestone Wednesday with state and federal road crews meeting up on the park's East Entrance Road.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation crews spent 11 days plowing westward from the East Entrance. They met Yellowstone crews plowing eastward about 15 miles inside the park gate, according to department spokesman Cody Beers.
"It went really well. Our people were dedicated to it, they enjoyed the effort, and we're pleased the Park Service was able to meet us," Beers said.
Plenty of work remains. Enough snow needs to be cleared for two lanes of traffic, plus extra room on the shoulders for motorists to pull over and turn around.
Also, parking areas and driveways for park installations still need to be cleared. For all of those reasons, the East Entrance is not scheduled to open until May 3.
The plowing by the state crews is funded by $100,000 raised by the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce and $71,000 from the town of Jackson.
The chamber and town, coordinating with the National Park Service and Gov. Matt Mead, came up with the plowing plan in the aftermath of the federal cuts that took effect March 1.
The cuts caused park officials to delay the start of spring plowing from March 4 to March 18. The idea was to let warmer weather do a greater share of snow removal work in Yellowstone this year and save the Park Service as much as $300,000.
The decision pushed back the estimated date of opening the East Entrance from May 3 to May 17 and the South Entrance from May 10 to May 24. That rankled business owners who worried about lost business from the first wave of tourists to visit the park by automobile this year.
Mead agreed to make state plows available to clear the Yellowstone roads provided the state didn't have to pick up the cost of about $5,000 to $10,000 per mile. Now, weather permitting, the gates are back on track to open as originally planned.
Cody chamber Director Scott Balyo suggested Yellowstone might even be able to open the East Entrance sooner than May 3. Park spokesman Dan Hottle said that was unlikely.
Besides all the plowing that needs to be done yet, there's always the possibility of more snow. About 2 ½ feet has fallen on the East Entrance Road this month, setting back the plowing effort by perhaps half a day, Beers said.
"We keep that caveat, 'weather permitting,'" Hottle added.
As of Wednesday, the forecast was favorable for plowing on the South Entrance Road to continue at a rate of a mile or two per day. About eight miles still needed to be plowed before park and state crews met up in that part of Yellowstone.
Balyo said the plowing program has enabled him to reassure travelers who call to ask about visiting the Yellowstone area.
"It's been great to be able to tell them, whether you've had plans in place or are just starting to make your plans, the gates are going to open on time," he said.