Yellowstone Avoids Delayed Opening Thanks To Efforts Of Wyoming Town

Over the past month or so we’ve all heard stories about the impact of sequestration on America’s national parks. Severe budget cuts, brought on by Congress’ inability to come to a fiscal compromise, have resulted in a loss of services in a number of parks across the country. In order to operate within its revised budget, this year the National Park Service has been forced to close visitor centers, cut back on staff and even delay the opening of some of the parks. One of those parks is Yellowstone, where the NPS decided to delay the spring opening by two weeks. That decision was made when park officials realized they could save as much as $100,000 by not having to plow snow from the roads following the scheduled May 3 opening. But thanks to the determination and generosity of one Wyoming town, the park will now open on schedule.

The town of Cody sits 52 miles outside of Yellowstone and serves as an access point for the park’s East Gate. As you can imagine, the sleepy little village sees a lot of traffic during the summer travel months with travelers stopping by on their way in or out of the park. Last year, over 11,000 visitors passed through the East Gate in the first two weeks of the season alone. The loss of that early season traffic this year was estimated to cost Cody more than $2 million in revenue.

Cody Chamber of Commerce executive director Scott Balyo saw the delayed opening as both a potential crisis and a major opportunity. He challenged the local citizens and businesses to raise the $100,000 necessary to pay the road crews to plow snow from Yellowstone’s highways, setting a deadline of April 1 to reach their goal. The response was overwhelming with contributions ranging from as little as $10 all the way up to $10,000. Together the citizens of Cody managed to complete their fund raising efforts well ahead of schedule.

Working in conjunction with Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk and officials from Wyoming, the town of Cody has now arranged for state vehicles to plow the roads inside the national park. The $100,000 raised will completely cover the costs, allowing the East Gate to open on schedule. That means anyone planning a visit to Yellowstone in early May will still have access to the park despite all of the on going sequestration drama.

This is good news for fans of Yellowstone and a job well done by the citizens of Cody.

Impact Of Sequester Cuts On Travel: Houston Is The Third World Airport Not Managua

As Americans, we’ve been bred to believe that the way we do things should be a model for the rest of the world. But after spending a good chunk of my Friday, day one of the sequester federal spending cuts, at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, I have to admit that Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, felt like a better run airport than that of our fourth largest city.

Comparing Augusto Sandino International Airport in Managua to George Bush is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, because Managua is a much sleepier place, but here is what I observed. We arrived at the airport in Managua at 11 a.m. and despite the fact that it was relatively busy, we made it through immigration, customs and baggage screening and to our gate by 11:30.

Managua has free Wi-Fi that is fast and works flawlessly. Free as in no strings attached. You don’t even have to register, agree to any terms of use or sign up for anything. But even better than that, there is free espresso spiked with rum at the Flor de Caña booth. And I’m not talking about a tiny sample either. They made me a double shot of espresso with a healthy shot of their delicious rum, aged in oak barrels for 12 years. Awesome.Managua also had a shop with counterfeit Major League Baseball wallets for just under a dollar (but sadly they had just one team: the Yankees).

We arrived in Houston with a three-hour layover and needed almost every minute of it to get to our connecting flight to Chicago, which left from Gate C39, which felt like it was about 18 miles from where we arrived. There was no free Wi-Fi (though it may be coming soon), no free espresso and no free rum. And the officially licensed Astros, Longhorns and Rockets items were a lot more than a buck. Worst of all, though, was the line to get through immigration.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Monday that the spending cuts have caused lines at some airports to spike by 150 to 200 percent and warned that travelers should budget extra time. We experienced that reality waiting to make it through immigration in Houston. I have never seen a line so long in my life and only about half of the dozens of lines were open, apparently because DHS has had to crack down on overtime. According to CBS News, John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) had approximately 56 flights with wait times in excess of two hours and 14 flights over three hours; Miami International Airport (MIA) reported 51 flights over two hours and four flights approached/exceeded three hours.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a statement which stated that due to sequestration, “CBP reduced overtime this weekend at Ports of Entry around the country… Lanes that would have previously been open due to overtime staffing were closed, further exacerbating wait times at airports with typically longer international arrival processes.”

We waited in line for a little more than 90 minutes, just to go through immigration and when we boarded our flight it was half-empty. But the crew announced that it was actually going to be a full flight and we’d have to wait for others who were making international connections and were hung up in the long lines. We took off an hour late and some people on our flight complained that they waited in line for three hours (I assume they were exaggerating but perhaps only a bit).

A spokesperson for IAH stated that the airport didn’t experience the kind of unusual delays that other airports experienced over the weekend but with the start of the Spring Break season this week, they expect that lines could be longer than usual in the next two weeks. I’m not sure if that means that very long lines are the norm in Houston and I don’t know how long the impact of the sequester cuts will last, but I can say that on day one of the new reality, Houston was the airport that felt like the third world, not Managua.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Sequestration Will Have Deep Impact On National Parks

A few weeks ago we shared leaked documents that gave us a glimpse of how the looming budget sequestration could impact America’s national parks. Those documents indicated that the National Park Service would implement a hiring freeze, push back the hiring of seasonal help and possibly cut hours and services in order to deal with the potential lack of funds. At the time, we speculated that those choices could have an impact on the overall experience for park visitors this year but as more details emerge it seems that reduced staff is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to a new report from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR), the same source that shared the original leaked documents, the direct impact of sequestration on some of the country’s top national parks is becoming much clearer – not to mention grimmer. Some of the specific cuts include a delayed opening of some of the roads into Yellowstone this spring, which would affect more than 78,000 visitors and reduce revenues by $150,000. Similarly, the Grand Canyon would see delayed openings of its East and West Rim Drives, turning away an additional 250,000 visitors as well.

Delayed openings are just the start of the issues that travelers could be facing this year, however, as other parks will be closing down certain areas altogether. For instance, Grand Teton National Park will shutter two visitor centers and a preserve, impacting a combined 300,000 visitors, while Cape Cod National Seashore will close a visitor center as well, turning away 260,000 travelers. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will have to operate without five campgrounds that typically house 54,000 visitors on an annual basis and Mt. Rainier will close its Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, which serves 85,000 people each year.

The CNPSR report has even more information on the impact of sequestration, which automatically goes into effect on March 1 provided the President and Congress aren’t able to come to a budget compromise first. The document is a sobering read for fans of the national parks to say the least. I recommend that anyone planning a visit to one of the parks this year checks in ahead of time to find out exactly what services are being cut due to a lack of funds.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]