Weather trumps sequester: 'Biggest part of our budget is snow removal'

CRATER LAKE, Ore. (AP) Unusually warm weather combined with a far below average winter snowfall means one of the expected impacts of federal sequestration will not slow the opening of roads and facilities at Crater Lake National Park.

Park officials had planned to allow portions of Rim Drive and North Entrance Road to melt with only limited snowplowing to save on cost of fueling the bulldozers and rotary snowplows. This will help offset the loss of $264,000 from federal sequestration.

The much lower than usual snowfall and weeks of warmer than usual weather have sped the melting process. As of Wednesday morning, the park had received 347 inches of snow since Oct. 1, 2012, well below the 524 inches received in an average season that will end May 31.

Wednesday, the park had 36 inches of snow, only about a third of the 92 inches that is normal for this time of year. No snow and relatively mild temperatures are predicted the next several days, too.

"The low snow year helps, but we also didn't get any late spring storms," said Vicki Snitzler, the park's interim superintendent.

"This couldn't have happened at a better year for me," said Ray Moore, Crater Lake's facilities manager/chief of maintenance, who oversees the road department. "The biggest part of our budget is snow removal and the spring opening."

Moore said it costs $35 to $40 an hour in fuel to operate each snowplowing rig two bulldozers and a rotary snowplow or about $100 to $125 an hour for all three. "Fuel is one of the last things I have left to reduce my costs."

Moore and Snitzler said they had considered allowing the north entrance to melt out with only minimal plowing. The impact of delaying opening the north entrance would have hugely affected sales at Park Service outlets and for the park's concessionaire, Xanterra, which operates Crater Lake Lodge, the Rim Village Cafeteria and lake tour boat operations.

Based on historic averages, park visitation more than doubles when the north entrance is open because travelers can enter the park through the south entrance near Fort Klamath and proceed along Rim Drive and out the north entrance while continuing on to the Rogue Valley or north along Highway 97. Snitzler and Moore said they expect the north entrance will open late next week, much earlier than usual.

Under tentative plans, plowing will continue on Rim Drive past the North Entrance and Cleetwood Cove, where a trail leads to the lake, and Skell Head, which Snitzler described as a good turnaround point for Crater Lake Trolley tours.

"We'll take stock on fuel and equipment," Snitzler said of plans to open the road beyond Skell Head and along East Rim Drive.

"We've been able to go on a clip we haven't seen for a long time," Moore said, noting the usual distance a snow clearing team can clear in a day is two-tenths of a mile. Crews have been routinely opening a half-mile a day this spring.

"For a year that could have been problematic, Mother Nature has been very helpful," he said.

Along with clearing roads of snow, road crews also spend considerable time removing rock fall, installing signs and repairing damaged road surfaces.

"We want the road to be safe and well-maintained," Moore said.


Information from: Herald and News,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press