MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. - The giant yellow snowplows that wake Yellowstone from its winter slumber every March are idled, waiting for the sun to make up for the federal sequester, which is forcing the park to open late.
Mandatory cuts kicked in three days before the plows were to start clearing snow and ice from 300 roads at altitudes that reach 11,000 feet. Faced with an order from Washington to slice $1.8 million from his budget, park Superintendent Dan Wenk had considered his options.
He could slash the ranks of the 430 seasonal rangers, guides and other employees who help keep Yellowstone running every summer. But that would mean fewer visitor centers and walking tours, and a risk to public safety.
He could halt the bison management program, but the program is required under a court settlement.
He could close the park for two weeks before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, but that would mean shutting out 267,000 visitors.
He could keep the seasonals, just fewer of them, and bring them on two weeks later, saving $450,000.
He could freeze all permanent hires, delay the snowplows and open most entrances two weeks late.
That, he decided, seemed to be the best bad alternative. The sun would eventually melt and soften the snow, saving $30,000 a day.
"We didn't say we're going to shut the park down" for the season, Wenk said. "But it will have real impacts."
At parks, military bases and federal agencies across the country, managers such as Wenk are weighing choices being forced by the budget reductions.
"Everybody says, 'We want you to run the park like a private business,' " he said, referring to the 5.1 percent cut he must make over seven months. "Well, here it is. The impact is 9 percent."
Early Monday, he sat in regulation khakis in the brown armchair in his office, 2,174 miles from Washington. The temperature outside was 3 degrees. He looked over a long list of calls and meetings on his schedule to make it official that plowing would not start on time.
He dialed the governor of Montana.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there that we are just doing this to make a statement about the effects of sequestration," he told Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, walking him through his decision.
"That's where we are, sir," Wenk said.
Bullock thanked him for the briefing. Then things got messy.
By midday, a news release had gone out, and the angry while-you-were-out slips were piling up. Tour guide Rusty Cole's was at the top.
"He's mad as hell and not buying your argument," read the message.
"Rusty should call his congressman," Wenk said in frustration, rubbing his eyes.
And Cole did. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., returned his call that night.
"He said the delayed opening is not a done deal," recounted Cole, who is furious that park officials are slashing two weeks from his 20-week season.
"They spend millions of dollars to operate Air Force One, and they can't come up with some money to blow open the roads in Yellowstone?" Cole said.
DOUBTS IN YELLOWSTONE COUNTRY
In 1872, the federal government saw to it that this spectacular landscape of 2.2 million acres, which is ringed by the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, was protected as America's first national park. Today, this is a deeply conservative place, where government is regarded with suspicion.
Just ask Wyoming's lone House member, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R, who applauded the $85 billion carved across the board in a letter to constituents.
"Instead of blindly filling empty desks," she wrote last week, "federal agencies will be forced to consider which positions are crucial and make their decision based on necessity rather than luxury."
In an interview, Lummis suggested that Wenk petition House and Senate appropriators for permission to take money from his capital budget to cover the cuts, an idea he said is not legal and would never get through Congress in time.
The late opening has further inflamed the area's anti-government sentiment as small communities that serve park visitors absorb the reality of the cuts.
In the large scheme of 3.4 million annual visits, losing 50,000 seems small. But the ripple effect on jobs and tourism could means millions of dollars in lost income. The plowing delay also means that snow won't be cleared until mid-June from the scenic Beartooth Highway, which straddles Montana and Wyoming outside the park. The National Park Service plows about half the the road.
"We have 90 days to make a living," said Sam Bolinger, 56, who leads whitewater rafting tours along the Yellowstone River. "If people get the impression they can't get into the park, they just won't come."
There was the hostile reaction from the mayor of Jackson, Wyo., 60 miles from the park's south entrance, who told Wenk that anyone knows how to cut 5.1 percent from a budget without inflicting this much pain.
"This is a small cut in your budget, sir," Mark Barron said. "If I ran my business like this, I wouldn't be in business long."
TOUGH DAYS FOR WENK
It was the day's one moment when Wenk, a self-possessed and widely respected 60-year-old civil servant, got mad. He was acting Park Service director in Washington in 2011 when the top job opened at Yellowstone. He had been a management assistant to the park superintendent in the early 1980s, and he and his wife couldn't wait to get back.
Wenk managed to contain his temper, though, telling Barron that Yellowstone's $33 million budget is $3.7 million smaller than it was three years ago. He asked Barron whether the park should continue to stay open in the winter, when each visitor costs five times as much as in the summer.
As sequestration hit, the park was preparing for high season, closing the hotels and restaurants that serve its fewer than 100,000 winter tourists. Yellowstone in winter is a landscape of white, broken only by pine trees and half-frozen rivers. Clouds of steam from the park's many geysers billow into the cold, while herds of bison forage. The only way around is by snowmobile, and that's the tourist draw.
On Wednesday, Wenk was 90 minutes into a meeting with his managers to decide which seasonal employees would not be called back and how the park would adjust to permanent vacancies, when the Wyoming governor's office called. The governor was getting complaints about the opening delay.
Wenk said he started thinking about next year, when he said he will be forced to consider closing the park in the winter. Sequestration, he thought, is here to stay.