Washington, DC - Despite internal warnings about "serious hazards" to visitors and staff, Yellowstone National Park is expanding a program using 105 mm artillery rounds to clear a remote mountain road during winter months, according to an agency memo released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Rather than close its East Entrance for winter, the park is more than doubling its avalanche control spending even though the road serves only 12 passengers per day.
Sylvan Pass, the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, is the only place in the national park system where high explosive projectiles are used for avalanche control. The National Park Service (NPS) estimates that it fires 200 rounds a year at Sylvan Pass, which lies seven miles inside the park's East Entrance Station and 57 miles from Cody, Wyoming. NPS grooms the road for snow coaches from December 1 to April 7.
An internal assessment of alternatives for avalanche control at Sylan Pass, however, says that the existing operation poses "serious hazards for visitors and employees" and that the expansion it adopted would "increase [the] potential for mass casualty incident." Apart from the inherent danger of working with explosives, other dangers include -
- Howitzer crews must "cross 4 major avalanche zones during high hazard to reach the gun and perform a mission." One ranger died in an avalanche while checking the road in 1994;
- Unexploded ordnance litters the area and complicates not only winter travel and road grooming but also requires searching for and removing unexploded ordnance prior to spring road opening. This summer, for example, re-opening the road after a mudslide became slow and dangerous work because all debris had to be screened for un-detonated shells; and
- "The comp-B explosive in the projectile is toxic when released into the environment after detonation," according to the NPS memo. Yet, the agency admits that its use of howitzers has never undergone any environmental assessment.
"Shoot first and ask questions later should not be the posture of our Park Service," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Something is wrong when the Park Service rejects alternatives that would reduce the risk to visitors and its employees while saving taxpayers money because of 'fiscal impact to the town of Cody and...established contractors.'"
The program is also costly. The total cost of this operation is now $149,000, but that conservative estimate does not include costs for training to maintain a crew qualified to handle and fire high explosives, howitzer maintenance, storage, and security for ammunition. The visitation to the park through the East Entrance during the last winter season (2003-2004) was approximately 12 individuals per day (or 1800 people for the entire season). That translates into a taxpayer expense of $83 for every visitor to the park.
This year, NPS has decided to supplement its howitzer operation by engaging a contractor to drop explosives from a helicopter for an additional $200,000. The annual cost for the new program has risen to $350,000, or approximately $194 for each passenger trip. There is no dedicated source of funds for this program, which therefore comes out of the park's operating budget.
"For $194 a trip we could fly each visitor to the other side of the park," Ruch added.