YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Winter visitors to Yellowstone National Park say they are largely unaffected by the partial federal government shutdown, thanks mainly to private concessionaires picking up the slack and federal workers showing up without pay.
After 34 days of reduced operations in the country’s national parks, Yellowstone visitors continue to tour the park by snow coach and snowmobile, much as they otherwise would under normal circumstances.
“We don’t agree with the shutdown, but it hasn’t really impaired us,” said Don Stewart, who lives in Georgia and has a summer home in Red Lodge.
Don and his wife Karen began planning a Yellowstone tour by snow coach in July after their daughter raved about a winter trip. Karen said she was initially dismayed when she heard about the shutdown. But a timely email from Xanterra Travel Collection, the park’s primary concessionaire, assured her they were still operating tours and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the only winter accommodations in the park’s interior.
“I’m glad we came; it’s just a visual delight,” said Karen, who was spending Jan. 11 and 12 at the Snow Lodge with Don.
Until then, the National Park Service had been staffing only law enforcement operations in the park. But the agency announced Jan. 11 that it would use visitor fees and other revenues to begin collecting trash and cleaning bathrooms. Entry fees are still not being collected, visitor centers remain closed and interpretive programs are suspended.
Winter visitation to Yellowstone is a tiny fraction of the park’s summer traffic, so operating on a skeleton crew is less likely to affect operations. But the most expensive and vital part of running Yellowstone in winter — grooming more than 200 miles of snow-covered roads — is still being funded by private businesses.
Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra, said the company has an agreement with the Park Service to cover the costs of grooming — smoothing the snowy bumps, drifts and ruts to allow over-snow vehicles to pass.
Along with 13 other park concessionaires, Xanterra is paying approximately $7,500 per day — more than $250,000 so far — to pay Park Service workers using government-owned heavy equipment to continue grooming operations.
The government will not reimburse them, Hoeninghausen said, “but without doing that, we wouldn’t be able to access places like the Snow Lodge. In fact we wouldn’t be open.”
He said the company is offering refunds for cancellations because of shutdown concerns, but there have been relatively few.
But “open” was not the same as “business as usual,” as visitors to Yellowstone’s Lower Falls noted on Jan. 13. Unshoveled snow blocked overlooks, and trash was overflowing in grimy restrooms adjacent to the closed visitor center.
A park ranger blamed shutdown confusion as he struggled to find up-to-date paperwork for a group of snowmobilers visiting from Cody. The ranger said there had been relatively few incidents of people entering the park without proper permits.
Most park employees appeared to take the shutdown in stride, but declined to speak on the record. The park’s public affairs office remains closed due to the shutdown.
Two staffers at the West Yellowstone entrance gate chatted with a snowmobile group while checking for required survival gear.
“Thanks for working without pay, it sucks and we appreciate what you’re doing,” one sledder told the park workers while entering.
Both employees grinned broadly, and one gave a thumbs-up as the other nodded.