You are here

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Struggles With Need To Use Explosives For Over-Snow Access

Twenty avalanche chutes rise above Sylvan Pass, which Yellowstone officials work to keep open with a mix of howitzer fire and helicopter-dropped bombs to ensure safe passage for a small number of snowmobile and snowcoach visitors. NPS graphic.

At Glacier National Park, exactly when in summer the Going-to-the-Sun Road will be open end-to-end is hard to predict, due to the heavy snows that fall along the Continental Divide there.

In Yellowstone National Park, a schedule determines when the road over Sylvan Pass will open in spring -- this year, the schedule calls for the route to be open from Lake to the East Entrance by May 3, although if the budget sequestration takes effect that could be delayed until June  -- and park crews try to adhere to it.

With artillery rounds.

Two national parks in the Rocky Mountains, two very different approaches to clearing away winter's snows to make way for summer visitors.

“Every day," Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said last week when asked if he struggles, philosophically, with using 105 mm howitzers to bomb a pass in the world's first national park so perhaps 100 snowmobiles and snowcoaches can safely motor over it.

Alternate Text
This is how crews in Glacier work to remove snow from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. NPS photo.

"One of the questions I asked shortly after I arrived in Yellowstone was if we didn’t use howitzers on Sylvan Pass in the winter, would we use them to open the road in the spring?" the superintendent continued. "And the answer I was told was 'yes.' The howitzers are being used not only for keeping access over Sylvan Pass in the winter, but they’re also used to open the road in the spring. I think that’s a question that we’ve had numerous discussions with the stakeholders on the east side of the park. Do I struggle with it? yes I do.

“I would love to find a way to provide the access that we need without having to do that.”

At Glacier, crews rely on gravity and sunshine to help clear the Sun Road. They do employ quite a few snowplows, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment to move the snow off the road, beginning, if possible, in April and winding up, if possible, sometime in June, and sometimes in July.

But they don't use bombs.

In Yellowstone, Superintendent Wenk alludes to the political pressures "on the east side of the park" that play a role the ongoing use of howitzers, both to keep Sylvan Pass open in winter and cleared off in spring. He said there have been discussions about moving toward the approach Glacier uses with the Sun Road in spring.

Alternate Text
This is what Yellowstone crews use to clear avalanche chutes above Sylvan Pass.

"Those are, as you might imagine, very difficult discussions," he said.

Political influences are common throughout the National Park System, but they can be particularly strong undercurrents in Yellowstone, as Superintendent Wenk's predecessor, Susan Lewis, discovered when she tried to approve a winter-use plan that did not include keeping Sylvan Pass open.

Ratcheting up the political pressure was the fact that the occupant of the vice president's office at the time was from Wyoming, Dick Cheney.

A new book from Michael J. Yochim, Protecting Yellowstone, Science and the Politics Of National Park Management, recounts what then-Superintendent Lewis encountered.

Upset over the possible loss of motorized winter access to Yellowstone over Sylvan Pass, Cody residents and Wyoming congressional representatives reacted strongly. Opposition sprang up form citizens groups in the Cody area, as well as from all levels of Wyoming government (city, county, and state). It did not take long before Vice President Cheney heard from his former neighbors. As Cheney later added:

"We did work with the Park Service. My office was contacted by folks from Cody. I talked to Colin Simpson (Cody state senator and son of Alan Simpson). I'm familiar generally with the importance of that east entrance to folks in Cody, the business community there. I recommended that my staff work on trying to keep that entrance open. As vice president, I don't run anything. I'm not in charge of the Park Service, but I can make suggestions, and my staff is actively involved in a lot of those issues on my behalf."

Cheney understated his influence, for just a few months later Yellowstone's managers changed their plans and decided to continue their avalanche-control program with only minor changes. They would close Sylvan Pass about ten days earlier in spring than the rest of the park roads, to save a small amount of funding, but the safety issues were not addressed in any significant manner. Park employees continue to travel under the uncontrolled avalanche zones to reach the howitzer.

Those politics continue today, and until they wane Yellowstone crews will shuttle between 100 and 300 55-pound artillery rounds to Sylvan Pass each year for use in winter avalanche control and spring snow removal. And come summer, they'll mark the hillsides above the pass off-limits to hikers, just in case there might be a stray round or two that didn't detonate.


Thanks for this article, Kurt. Political influences in national park areas are much stronger than most folks realize -- or are willing to admit. No doubt political pressures will make managing budget cuts much more difficult for park managers.

Whats the issue?

Kind of like Dick Cheney's remark when he was informed that the 3000th American soldier had just been killed in Iraq.

He shrugged his shoulders and said, "So?"

Lee - care to document that? I suspect you have totally mischaracterized the comment.

Just as you mischaracterized the "Walmart subsidy". That was not some alturistic jester because town council was in bed with Walmart. The town (not federal goverment) wasn't subsidizing Walmart, they cut a deal with Walmart which would bring in substantial additional revenues to the the town. The town was far better off (financially) with the Walmart deal than without.

And I ask again - what is the issue in the above article? The national forest service and ski partrols use howitzer's and other explosives all the time here in Colorado for avalanche control without incident.

EC, it's a fairly straightforward issue: Should the National Park Service, which is mandated to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein..." for future generations, be using military howitzers to clear avalanche paths?

More so, in these fiscal times, should it be spending what equates to $1,250 per person through the winter months in the process....??

Yellowstone is not a national forest, it's a national park, and the Park Service has more a more stringent mandate when it comes to managing the parks.

Should the National Park Service, which is mandated to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein..." for future generations, be using military howitzers to clear avalanche paths?

I don't see anything in the story that suggeststhat any damage to the scenery and the natural and historic objects or wildlife therein. Is there meaningful destruction or are these rounds being lobbed into banks of snow initiating avalaches what would occur anyway?

As to $1250 per person, I'm not sure wher that number came from. Does sound high but I would have to know the details before I could express an opinion.

ec, and here I thought you read the Traveler regularly and faithfully! All your questions have been answered in previous stories. The $1,250 fee was mentioned just last week in the story about the park's proposed winter-use plan. It's based on the $125,000 the park spends to keep the pass open for over-snow traffic.

As for the damage, just on its face that's quite obvious. But here's some more background for you:


From last weeks article

at $125,000 per winter, or roughly $1,200 per

that math works out to 104 visitors for the season. Doesn't seem quite right.

"As for the damage, just on its face that's quite obvious."

Not only is it not obvious, I don't see anything in that article that attributes actual damages to the use of cannons or explosives.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide