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.
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.”