Letters From the West

Budget cuts may return silence to Yellowstone winters

Steve Fuller in Yellowstone National Park

Steve Fuller in Yellowstone National Park (Photo by Rocky Barker)

Yellowstone National Park remains closed this month because of sequestration cuts of 9 percent of its budget.

Its Superintendent Dan Wenk delayed plowing open its entrances by three weeks to keep a few more seasonal staff and to keep the park open later in the fall when hundreds of thousands of visitors would otherwise be turned away.

The Washington Post published an excellent story showing the sequester cuts and the political outcry Wenk is facing from surrounding states and gateway communities whose economies are tied to the park. The story ends with a reality check that to meet the continuing budget cuts into the future Wenk is going to have to seriously consider closing the park in winter.

The economics is simple. It costs the federal government $50 per visitor in the winter to only $10 in the summer.

Yellowstone’s official winter season began in 1971 when the first Snow Lodge opened at Old Faithful. By the 1992-93 season 140,000 people were visiting Yellowstone in winter, most on snowmobiles.

A fierce debate arose between the snowmobile industry and gateway towns and states on one side and environmentalist on the other, over snowmobiling in the park. That fight all but ended this year after the latest winter plan represented a compromise both sides could support.

So now it could be budget cuts that return Yellowstone to the quiet, desolate place it was in 1971. I first visited Yellowstone in winter in February 1988 to do a story about winterkeeper Steve Fuller.

He picked me up on a snowmobile and we made the 40-mile trip to his small house near Canyon Village. We didn’t pass anyone.

But for Fuller, who first came to Yellowstone in 1973, the park was already getting crowded. Weekends were getting busier.

It was a far cry from the job he took that no one wanted because of the bad pay and the requirement he had to stay in the park all winter. But Fuller, who raised his two daughters in the park, the isolation was just what he needed.

His main job was shoveling the snow off the roofs of Canyon Village. It was hard work that became zen-like for the former journalist, teacher and hospital worker who had already lived all over the world. I remember him sliding down a steep roof , riding the edge of a snow-filled shovel until right before the edge.

His passion was photography and he had already developed a worldwide reputation for his stunning photographs of Yellowstone in magazines like National Geographic. If you have stayed in a hotel in Yellowstone you have likely seen one of his remarkable pictures that contrast the fire and ice of the park’s thermal areas with sunlight and animals.

I returned several times to Fuller’s hideaway after that into the 1990s. Steve couldn’t pick me up so I hitchhiked a ride with Arden Bailey, a geologist at the Idaho National Laboratory in the summer and a yurt outfitter at Canyon in the winter.

We rode with his partner Erica Hutchings, then a seasonal ranger, in his ancient Bombardier snowcoach that broke down several times as he carried groceries to his camp. Eventually their Yellowstone Expeditions had a new snowcoach and a brisk business as Yellowstone had become a major destination in winter as it was in the summer.

When Steve and I would cross country ski through the powder in the early years we could go all day without hearing anything human. But by my last trip on a weekend a constant drone of snowmobiles passed through canyon with its warming hut, gas station and other services that have opened up most of the once silent park.

Visiting Yellowstone in winter is not cheap, costing as much as $500 a day. So closing it may have a major impact economically on communities that have nothing else in the winter. But it is not a experience for the masses if it ever was.

I doubt the bison and elk would miss us if Yellowstone were to close in winter. But this is the kind of a decision throughout government austerity requires.

Fuller, now well into his 60s, is still at Canyon, still winterkeeping in a job and world that is far more complex than 40 years ago. It would be poetic if the man who sought a place to tend to his soul gets a chance to have it all to himself again before he leaves.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West