The National Park Service uses artillery shells to mitigate avalanches on Sylvan Pass, which allows access to the park from the east. In the winter, the pass is open only to snowmobiles and
other “over-the-snow” vehicles. A decade ago, a few thousand snowmobiles might make the trek from Cody to Yellowstone Park over Sylvan Pass. Now the number is closer to a few hundred. Ever since the use of two-stroke snowmobiles was banned in the Park, many of those users are going elsewhere. And yet still the Park clears the slidepaths with explosives.
The annual cost to mitigate the avalanche hazard in the 20 slidepaths on Sylvan Pass, which often gets 350 inches of snow annually, can be as high as $325,000, according to Billings Gazette. Avalanche control teams use a 105 Howitzer, creating avalanches when the road is closed. Teams have also
dropped explosives from helicopters when the conditions are too dangerous to access the Howitzer.
Sylvan Pass is the only avalanche area within a National Park that utilizes explosives to stay open for tourists. With a high cost and low use, it seems an impractical use of funds.
In 2007, when the Park considered closing the pass in winter, local snowmobilers and politicians were outraged. Conservation groups tried to push back, claiming, among other things, that the risk of unexploded shells tipped the risk/reward calculus into the red. In 1997, a tourist brought an unexploded shell into the visitor center, no doubt starting a massive panic.
According to some estimates, as many as 300 unexploded bombs could be hanging around in the Sylvan Pass area. That number seems both high and astonishing. If there are only half that many unexploded shells, the risk is still high. Some war zones probably aren’t that crowded with duds.
Explosives can fail to detonate for any number of reasons. Once an explosive is lit, it is considered live until it detonates. In military parlance, duds are known as “unexploded ordnance”, and they can pose a risk of detonation even decades after they are lit. A dud, then, is not something to mess around with.
Recently these duds have been in the news, since the numbers have recently been released. In my opinion, the real issue isn’t the duds, but the need for explosive control at all. Does this road really need to stay open for what seems like an average of one snowmobile a day or less?
Defenders of snowmobiling in Yellowstone continue to fight their battle, hanging onto what Clinton nearly succeeded in ending. But at what cost? Should we continue to keep Sylvan Pass open with federal dollars? Should Yellowstone allow snowmobiling, even the kinder gentler four-stroke engines?
Snowmobiling allows widespread winter access to Yellowstone. And perhaps, that’s a good thing. But with unexploded artillery shells and an explosives budget as high as any Class A ski area, I’m not so sure the cost is worth the effort.
I’d love to hear what you think. Leave your comments below.
- Dud artillery shells left above Yellowstone pass (billingsgazette.com)