By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, Wyoming (Reuters) - During the first full week of March every year, the mountain passes of Yellowstone National Park rumble with the sounds of hulking snow plows operated by two dozen, mostly seasonal workers. This month, the plows will be silent.
The costly and complex road-clearing operation that was scheduled to start on Monday will be postponed this year because of the U.S. government's across-the-board budget cuts known as the "sequester," which took effect on Friday.
Park managers have to trim $1.75 million from Yellowstone's $35 million annual budget, which will delay the opening of most entrances to America's first national park by two weeks. Park managers will give more details on Monday.
Local tourism industry leaders are not happy with the decision. A delay in the park's traditional early May opening and other service reductions could mean millions of dollars in lost tourism and tax revenues for small, rural towns in Montana and Wyoming.
"I think it's counterproductive, and I expect a lot of people to be raising hell," said Mike Darby, whose family owns the Irma Hotel in downtown Cody, Wyoming, at the east gate of Yellowstone.
Built in 1902 by frontier showman Buffalo Bill Cody, the hotel is decorated with bison heads and hunting rifles. The business survives the lean winter months by drawing local customers to its restaurant and Silver Saddle Lounge, where cowboys meet for a beer on weekends.
A two-week delay in Yellowstone's opening means Cody will miss out on more than 150,000 visitors spending an estimated $2.3 million, according to figures released by the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. Similar shortfalls in four other gateway towns around the park could put total losses from a two-week delayed opening at more than $10 million.
Beyond Yellowstone, the National Parks Conservation Association has warned that a $110 million cut to the National Park Service budget will result in job losses and reduced services at the country's 398 national parks.
For example, the U.S. spending cuts could lead to a 20 percent reduction in spring student education programs at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, affecting 2,400 students; a two-week delay in the reopening of Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, which could cost $1 million in lost revenue daily to surrounding communities and concessions; and a delay in the opening of the Grand Canyon National Park's East and West Rim Drives, according to the NPCA.
"It's alarming that this very avoidable threat could become a reality. From Yellowstone to Cape Cod, the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains, our national heritage and local economies are at risk," NPCA President Tom Kiernan said in a statement on Thursday.
Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park each attracts roughly 3 million annual visitors who come to see grizzly bears, geysers and wide-open spaces. The two parks generated a total of $766 million in tourism spending in 2011, supporting 11,438 jobs, according to a Michigan State University analysis released last month.
If the budget cuts roll on through the summer, local business owners fear that families may decide to vacation elsewhere, which could mean disastrous losses in local tax collections for gas, food, lodging and merchandise.
"They could end up losing more in taxes over the season than what they saved with budget cuts," Darby said. "It's ridiculous."
Some tourism leaders in Wyoming are working on their own plans to raise money to plow the roads at Yellowstone, in an effort to honor the spring opening dates that many families have already planned their vacations around.
With a budget focused largely on fixed costs like fuel and salaries for key employees, there are no easy cuts to be made in Yellowstone's operating expenses.
"We really do have very few places that we can go" to cut costs, said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash. "Our workforce is made up of a lot of seasonal employees, so that's certainly a major area where we can make changes."
Plowing more than 300 miles of high-altitude paved roads in Yellowstone takes weeks, and burns through as much as $10,000 worth of diesel fuel each day.
Waiting for warmer weather to help clear some of that snow is expected save about $250,000 in plowing costs, Superintendent Dan Wenk told Darby and other gateway community business leaders this week in a conference call to outline planned cuts.
A further $1 million in savings will come from not hiring replacements for some departing permanent workers. Wenk expects to save an additional $500,000 by reducing the seasonal workforce and through travel and training reductions.
In Jackson, Wyoming, at the southern boundary of Grand Teton National Park, business owners are pushing to get the word out that the parks and surrounding areas will be open for business this summer, despite the cuts.
But budget cuts mean that three popular visitor centers in Grand Teton will not open at all this summer, said park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.
Since many maintenance workers and other seasonal employees carry out double duties as on-call firefighters, paramedics or search-and-rescue workers, payroll reductions will mean fewer emergency responders in the park this summer.
"We will do our best not to allow those reductions to impact the safety of our visitors and employees," Skaggs said. "But the reality is our response capabilities will be reduced."
In staunchly conservative Wyoming — where legislators just cut most state agency budgets by 6.5 percent despite virtually no state debt and more than $15 billion in savings — the across-the-board federal cuts are raising questions.
Residents who depend on tourism for a living are already complaining to the state's all-Republican congressional delegation, which is on record as supporting the cuts if it means the alternative is raising taxes.
"I'm sorry, but in how this is affecting us, it doesn't seem to me like it's fiscally responsible," Darby said. "Somebody needs to refigure this, or we need to get better advocates."
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Tiffany Wu and Peter Cooney)