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In Yellowstone vehicles, Wyoming officials see revenue stream

A group of snowcoaches — sporting Montana license plates — prepares to transport employees from Mammoth Hotel to the Old Faithful Snowlodge in this December 2015 file photo. Wyoming Department of Transportation officials say there’s a number of commercial and personal vehicles in Yellowstone National Park that are not registered in Wyoming but should be. A group of snowcoaches — sporting Montana license plates — prepares to transport employees from Mammoth Hotel to the Old Faithful Snowlodge in this December 2015 file photo. Wyoming Department of Transportation officials say there’s a number of commercial and personal vehicles in Yellowstone National Park that are not registered in Wyoming but should be. Photo courtesy Diane Renkin, National Park Service

Three years ago, the residents of Yellowstone National Park claimed one of their rights as Wyoming citizens: state-funded educations for their children.

Now, the State of Wyoming wants to ensure those who live and work in Yellowstone fulfill one obligation of being a Wyoming resident: registering their vehicles in the state.

At the request of Gov. Matt Mead and members of Wyoming’s Congressional delegation — and apparently spurred by complaints from a Cody resident — the Wyoming Department of Transportation is pushing to get more Yellowstone residents and workers to follow state law and purchase Wyoming registrations and driver’s licenses.

There are around 550 permanent and more than 3,000 seasonal employees working for the National Park Service and Yellowstone’s concessionaire, Xanterra Parks & Resorts. State and federal officials say they don’t know how many of those people need to get Wyoming plates, but, with an average vehicle registration costing a couple hundred dollars, the state could theoretically be losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees each year.

Bill Panos, WYDOT’s director, says it’s been a problem “for years and years and years.”

“The U.S. government trucks are one thing, but the private vehicles that are up there all the time, and the Xanterra vehicles? I want to see Wyoming plates on those trucks,” Panos told Park County commissioners in August. “And that will occur.”

WYDOT, joined by the Park County Treasurer’s Office, has spoken with Yellowstone and Xanterra officials about the issue this year.

“We actually did find that there were a number of people — not as many as people thought, but there were a number of people — that were permanent residents up there that didn’t have Wyoming registrations and didn’t have Wyoming driver’s licenses,” Panos said.

WYDOT plans to make a push to increase the number of registrations when temporary employees start arriving in the park next spring.

Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk says he thinks that, among the park’s year-round residents, there’s an “extraordinarily high level of compliance” with Wyoming’s vehicle registration laws. In a Tuesday interview, Wenk also guessed that there’s “a lot less compliance” among seasonal employees, saying vehicle registrations are not something a worker would normally think about during their months in Yellowstone.

“I would suggest … that that’s also true in any dude ranch outside of the park, any employer in Cody or Powell or anyplace else in terms of those kinds of seasonal employees,” Wenk said. “I don’t think we’re any different than anybody else in that regard.”

But the superintendent also said he believes the park has a responsibility to make Yellowstone and concessionaire employees aware of Wyoming’s laws.

“We have told people about registration [in the past], but we agreed we could do more,” Wenk said of the discussions this year. While the Park Service has included registration information in its own employee handbook, Wenk said he decided that “we could talk to Xanterra about what the responsibilities were — that they should notify their employees of the requirements.”

Panos, the WYDOT director, told commissioners in August that “a lot” of Xanterra’s trucks need Wyoming plates.

A spokesman for Xanterra, Rick Hoeninghausen, referred questions to WYDOT.

“It would be difficult for us to comment since we are still awaiting further guidance and clarification regarding who this might impact and what specifically would be required,” he said.

‘It wasn’t convenient’

Some of the Park County officials and residents who helped push the registration issue to the forefront were rankled by the fact that Wenk lacked Wyoming plates on his own personal vehicle.

“The problem is when your superintendent up there is registering his stuff out of state,” Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said at a Sept. 5 meeting among the county’s elected officials, saying when that’s the case, “what are the troops going to do?”

County commissioners sent Wenk a letter in December 2016, asking him to get residents and employees to comply with the state’s registration laws.

Wenk’s staff conferred with the Department of the Interior’s regional Office of the Solicitor — which confirmed Wyoming’s vehicle laws apply in Yellowstone.

“Accordingly, I will alert all park residents and resident employees of the applicability of the statutes,” Wenk said in a March response to the county, adding, “Many of them will have circumstances they will need to clarify on their own about whether the statutes apply to them.”

At least one county commissioner raised the subject with Wenk when the superintendent visited Cody in May. When commissioners met with him in Yellowstone on the afternoon of Sept. 5, Wenk’s license plates were brought up again. That time, he contacted the Park County Treasurer’s Office and switched his vehicle’s registration from South Dakota to Wyoming.

Asked why he didn’t make the switch earlier, “I have no excuse other than it wasn’t convenient,” Wenk said. “And I could have done it by mail, and I finally did it by mail.”

But he also contends that the legal situation is not clear cut, in part because Wyoming’s laws conflict with other states’ laws; by switching his vehicle’s registration, he lost his legal status as a South Dakotan — residency he established in 1985 and had maintained even while previously living in Washington, D.C.

“Because I was causing this uproar, I registered my vehicle in Wyoming. But my wife, who spends less than half-a-year here, and she has a car, where am I supposed to register that car?” Wenk asked rhetorically, adding, “My home is in South Dakota and if I register her vehicle here, she’s no longer a resident of South Dakota, either.”

Yellowstone Chief Ranger Peter Webster said it’s not a simple issue for law enforcement. Webster said there’s ambiguity and complexity, because the registration often depends on a person’s individual situation.

“... It isn’t across the board that everybody, black and white, that has a Yellowstone National Park employee sticker should also have a Wyoming license plate,” Webster said. He gave the example of Yellowstone employees who only live and work in Montana, such as those at the West and North entrances.

Wenk also gave the theoretical example of two friends from Colorado who take summer jobs in the park between semesters at, respectively, the University of Wyoming and a college in Washington; in that instance, the UW student would not have to re-register his Colorado car in Wyoming (in-state students are exempted), but the worker attending school in Washington would.

The park’s employee handbook carries an advisement that Wyoming law requires people ”to register their vehicles as soon as they become residents of the state.” It defines that as living in Wyoming and owning, renting or leasing a residence.

Park County officials have said the vehicle registration law also applies when you register to vote in Wyoming or have lived here for 120 days — regardless of where you call home.

A fight over school funding

Vehicle registrations in Yellowstone became a focal point because of a recent dispute over who needs to pay for the education of the roughly three dozen children living in Mammoth Hot Springs, the park’s administrative hub.

For decades, the federal government had footed the bill for the students to be educated in Gardiner, Montana. However, in 2014, Yellowstone officials announced they’d uncovered an old law that prohibited the federal government from paying for the students’ education.

Mammoth residents then turned to the State of Wyoming for funding. As Wyoming residents, they submitted a petition to Park County officials with 108 signatures. It asked that the northern part of Yellowstone — which lies within Park County — be added to one of the local school districts.

At the urging of Gov. Mead and others, the Park County District Boundary Board — made up of the county commissioners, assessor and treasurer — reluctantly agreed to make the area a part of the Powell school district. The State of Wyoming expects to pay around $430,000 for the Mammoth students’ education in Gardiner this year.

While there have been no logistical problems with the arrangement, several boundary board officials and members of the public remain unhappy with how things played out.

“I’m still constantly getting emails,” Park County Assessor Pat Meyer said at the county’s Sept. 5 meeting; he called the National Park Service’s actions “not fair.”

“Our state legislators, I’ve talked to quite a few of them over it and they agree that we should not be funding these kids to go over to Gardiner, Montana. Yellowstone park should be paying that bill,” Meyer said.

Between the lack of vehicle registrations and the fact that Yellowstone’s lodges and other concessionaire facilities are not subject to property taxes, “we’re missing out on some big money for taxes,” Meyer said.

The federal government does give the county Payment in Lieu of Taxes — about $1.84 million in the last fiscal year — for its roughly 3.59 million acres of federal lands.

Wyoming gasoline, lodging and sales taxes are assessed in Yellowstone. Wenk says that amounts to around $10 million a year, which all goes to projects outside the park.

Funding from vehicle registrations are distributed in the same way as property taxes: K-12 schools get 72 percent of the funding, the county receives 12 percent and various other governmental entities split the remaining 16 percent, said Park County Treasurer Barb Poley.

Critic starts conversation

Cody resident Steve Torrey — a wildlife photographer and a frequent, longtime critic of Yellowstone administrators — helped start the discussion about the lack of Wyoming registrations in the park. And he’s kept it going.

In a February 2016 letter to Wyoming’s Congressional delegation, Torrey said having the state pay for the Mammoth students’ education amounted to “representation without taxation.” He argued that park residents’ government-subsidized rent should have been raised to pay for the education.

Days later, he visited Mammoth Hot Springs’ Officer’s Row (where the park’s top officials live) and reported finding that only seven of 20 vehicles parked there had Wyoming plates. (Whether all of those vehicles were required to be registered in Wyoming is unknown.)

In November 2016, Torrey started collecting signatures on a petition of his own. It asked the superintendent to require park employees and residents to register their vehicles in Wyoming. After being approached by Torrey, Commissioners sent their letter to Wenk in December.

Torrey said he paused his effort at several points, as he hoped state and county officials would address the issue. But he concluded that things were moving too slowly and on Sept. 6, he drove to Mammoth and confronted Wenk with the petition. It contained 249 signatures — some belonging to elected officials in Park County — and a cover letter from Torrey asking the superintendent to show the “same exuberance you personally exhibited in the 2014 tuition process” in enforcing Wyoming’s vehicle registration laws.

Ranger Webster said the Park Service will enforce the law, but he indicated it will not be the highest priority — and he noted the difficulty of determining whether a particular vehicle must be registered in Wyoming.

“We can’t look at a car and know if that car has an exemption or doesn’t have an exemption,” superintendent Wenk said. Both Webster and Wenk suggested that law enforcement officials outside the park face the same challenges with out-of-state plates.

Driving forward

WYDOT officials have tentative plans to visit Mammoth next spring and set up a temporary registration office for three one-week stints in April, May and June, director Panos said. The timing is intended to catch seasonal employees as they start their jobs in the park.

It’s possible WYDOT personnel could be joined by representatives from the Park and Teton county treasurers’ offices, though Park County commissioners have already expressed reservations about spending money on trips to Mammoth.

To date, there haven’t been a lot of Park County vehicles registered to people living in Yellowstone, said treasurer Poley, and her office has not seen an influx of registrations from the park this year. But she hopes the recent push will boost registration.

“I feel good that at least we’ve got their attention — that they at least are saying they’re making steps,” Park County Commission Chairman Lee Livingston said in an interview last month, adding, “I think we’re moving toward things being better.”

10 comments

  • posted by Rebecca Marks

    October 17, 2017 10:29 pm

    Has anyone researched how seasonal employees declaring residency in Wyoming may impact college students and the eligibility for resident tuiton rates in their home states? This may have a bigger impact than people realize.

  • posted by Matthew

    October 17, 2017 5:09 pm

    It should be pointed out that Mr Torrey has an agenda here. He's been banned from the park for violating park regulations on multiple occasions. He's been railing against all kinds of silly stuff related to the park for YEARS. He's not the least bit concerned about the financial aspect of it - he is totally in it to get payback for being kicked out of the park.

  • posted by Salty Dawg

    October 17, 2017 7:19 am

    Thank you for your analogy...Steve...but it does not erase the fact that Wyoming..and mainly the culprits in Park County...are using Yellowstone as a cash cow,and have been for generations.Why did all the good jobs disappear in Cody only to be replaced by seasonal tourist jobs that few can make a living at? Politics are behind a lot of this and we all know what politicians reside in the Cody...and Jackson area.

  • posted by Steve Torrey

    October 15, 2017 9:50 am

    Dear Sara, Dewey, and Salty,

    Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 4.2 (a) and (b), makes perfectly clear Wyoming vehicle and traffic laws apply in Yellowstone. In fact, the CFR applies to all national parks, forests, and public lands. The CFR is the law of the land in the parks. Tie a clothesline to a tree and you will be introduced to the CFR.

    >>>Sara, individual businesses operating in the park fill out their sales tax forms just like every Wyoming business outside the park. The Buck Act of 1940 allowed Wyoming to collect sales tax within Yellowstone. On concession employees, Wyoming workers comp and unemployment taxes are withheld from payroll checks. Residents of Park and Teton Counties within Yellowstone can vote in Wyoming - and do.

    >>>Dewey, Wyoming became a territory in 1869. If Yellowstone truly was an exclusive federal jurisdiction, there would have to have been a 'carve-out' at the time of Statehood in 1890, since Yellowstone was established in 1872. The National Park Service is the Johnny-Come-Lately, having been established in the 1916 Organic Act. You're right, money does "funny things to ppl's minds"! Look at how the Mammoth residents can play the state line in terms of personal profiteering. Typically we see that behavior in BIG OIL - and BIG everything. BTW, if I ever could make the distinction, I would purchase little oil.

    >>>Salty, Yes, the state is reeling in spending - and searching for new revenue streams, just like the park did when hit with sequestration in March of 2013, which led to the tuition petition of 2014. Since the CFR has been around for decades, perhaps the past residents of the park should pony-up some arears with, of course, penalty and interest. You know the folks who, so meticulously, enforced the CFR, except on themselves.

    ST

  • posted by mark

    October 14, 2017 10:30 am

    They want seasonals who only spend a couple of months in the state to register their vehicles! Since when have states required this? Making special rules so Wyoming can bleed more bucks out of people who are not making much money for these jobs.

    Wouldn't it be nice if the state and this tiresome photographer saw the park as a national treasure and not a cash cow. This is an odd thing for a photographer to get involved in. What is behind this? Doesn't like some rules in the park?

  • posted by Salty Dawg

    October 14, 2017 7:47 am

    @ Bill Carson...that investigation into cheney buying a resident fishing license after LYING about being a Wyoming resident worked quite well,didn't it? Sounds like certain people get certain privileges.

  • posted by Bill Carson

    October 12, 2017 10:46 pm

    Regardless of when Wyoming became a state and Yellowstone's existence it is now within the borders of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Thus, it's residents must comply with the laws of the state which they live in. Yellowstone's residents can not have their cake and eat it by enjoying Wyoming's lack of an income tax, Montana's lack of sales tax, and education for their children in Montana paid for by Wyoming.
    As to Mr wenk's concern of losing his residency in South Dakota due to his registration in Wy I say he's full of it. If he owns residential property in SD and votes there then he is still a resident of SD. I believe Wy G&F should start an investigation into resident hunting licenses issued to Yellowstone residents who are not bonifide Wy residents. It's high time Yellowstone residents start playing by the same rules the rest of us are required to abide by. Kudos to Steve Torrey for his relentless effort to right this wrong.

  • posted by Sara mc

    October 12, 2017 6:04 pm

    Wyoming collects millions in sales tax in Yellowstone due to a rider they put into law. Maybe that money should be spent in the park on roads or other needed upkeep. They get that money free and clear since park does everything.

  • posted by Dewey V

    October 12, 2017 2:53 pm

    I do seem to recall my Cody public school history teaching me that Yellowstone NATIONAL Park was created 18 years before Wyoming the state even existed, and 41 years before Park County was carved into it.

    Money ( or the lack of it ) sure does funny things to people's minds, doesn't it?

  • posted by Salty Dawg

    October 12, 2017 8:53 am

    What part of NATIONAL PARK don't these greedy clowns understand. Yellowstone belongs to ALL of America...not Wyoming..and certainly not Park County.If Wyoming is so broke,then perhaps the bean counters should have reeled in spending long ago...new schools in every town would have been a good starter.By electing these spendaholics...you people are your own worst enemy.

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