With all the debate over National Park Service Management Policies, corporate sponsorships, and loyalty oaths, a story that's been pushed off the stage has been the ongoing debate over snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
To give you a quick update, the following is a story I wrote that recently appeared in Wilderness, the magazine of The Wilderness Society.
Midwinter’s hush is not that at all in Yellowstone. Geysers hiss, spit and fume. Rivers gurgle beneath thick mantles of ice. Hot springs sizzle, ravens caw, and wolves howl. At the brim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, the falls’ throaty roar fills the gorge to the brim. Nature’s quiet side is really not that quiet at all.
Yet at Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, natural sounds often have been obscured by what sounds like a jarful of irate bees. The buzzing comes from snowmobiles roaring around the Grand Loop and its connector roads. It has been most persistent between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful, the busiest snowmobile route.
Against this backdrop, the National Park Service is conducting its fourth environmental study into whether snowmobiles are compatible with Yellowstone’s remarkable landscape and wildlife. Three previous studies—an Environmental Impact Statement in 2000, a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in 2003, and an Environmental Assessment in 2004—all concluded that Yellowstone without snowmobiles would be cleaner, quieter, and healthier.
A phase-out of snowmobiles, the NPS and Environmental Protection Agency have agreed—three times already—is the best way to preserve the park’s “unique historic, cultural and natural resources.”
While the past studies considered improvements to snowmobiles, particularly the arrival of four-stroke machines that are cleaner and quieter than their two-stroke cousins, in June the park announced it would conduct one more EIS. The goal, park officials say, is to examine monitoring data from last winter to gauge whether four-stroke snowmobiles can safely, cleanly, and quietly prowl the park’s winterscape. The alternative is to ban snowmobiles in favor of fleets of larger, cleaner, and quieter snowcoaches.
“What the studies are continuing to show,” says Jon Catton, a Bozeman, Montana-based conservationist who has worked on the issue for six years, “is that despite some reduction in air pollution and noise from the new snowmobiles, it’s still vastly more than what you get from snowcoaches.”
Yellowstone’s John Sacklin, a management assistant who has invested more than a decade crafting the park’s winter-use plans, says “adverse impacts” don’t necessarily equate with “impairment” of park resources, an intolerable level of harm.
“We have consistently said in our analysis, in our various documents, that that is not the case,” he says.
The way Sacklin explains the situation, once all the studies are in, officials could rule that snowmobiles built with “best available technology,” even if they were still somewhat smelly and noisy, would not “impair” the park if carefully managed. Yet that position seems contrary to the Park Service’s Organic Act, its own management policies, the Clean Air Act, and even presidential executive orders, all of which Yellowstone officials cited when they developed the temporary plan for winter 2004-2005.
“In cases of doubt as to the impacts of existing or potential air pollution on park resources, the Service will err on the side of protecting air quality and related values for future generations,” states the 2004 EA, adding a bit later that “(T)he Service will restore degraded soundscapes to the natural condition whenever possible, and will protect natural soundscapes from degradation due to noise (undesirable human-caused sound).”
In his Placitas, New Mexico, home, Rick Smith shakes his head at seemingly unending snowmobile debate. A 31-year Park Service employee who worked in the field, in regional offices, in the Washington, D.C., headquarters, and as superintendent of two parks before retiring, Smith says it’s obvious that politics, not science, is driving the debate.
“I think the park would choose (the environmentally preferred alternative) if not for the political leadership, which seems to be desperately searching for a slim thread of scientific evidence upon which they can hang or festoon snowmobiling in Yellowstone,” he says.
While the Park Service embarks on another study, expected to cost at least $2 million, the public seems to have signaled its preference. During the winter of 2004-05 snowmobile use in the park dropped from past years while snowcoach traffic grew. Although poor snow conditions early and late in the winter affected snowmobile numbers, during the snowy months of January and February their numbers still were conspicuously down.
Though the temporary winter-use plan allows for as many as 720 snowmobiles a day in the park, on average just 209 machines entered daily last winter. And while snowmobile traffic slipped 20 percent from the previous winter and 60 percent from 2003-04, snowcoach ridership was up 16 percent last year and 42 percent over 2003-04.
“I think what we’re seeing now is people are becoming more familiar with what a snowcoach is and the many advantages they offer,” says Betsy Buffington, associate regional director in The Wilderness Society’s Northern Rockies office. “The more people experience it (snowcoaches) and talk about it, the more people who come.”
Ed Klim is president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, which believes that snowmobiles belong in Yellowstone. In his view, last winter’s drop in snowmobile numbers was due to poor snow in the park, better snow elsewhere in the country, a soft economy, and continued uncertainty over snowmobile access to Yellowstone. In the end, after all the environmental studies and court battles, Klim fully expects to be able to snowmobile through the park under a plan similar to the temporary one now in effect.
“It’ll get to the point where maybe there will be 600 or 700 a day, which is what they’ll allow,” he says. “I know that the folks at the Park Service, the people who work the gates, they know it’s a good system.”
But in West Yellowstone, long known as the “Snowmobile Capital of the World,” outfitter Randy Roberson, who for more than two decades rented snowmobiles to park visitors, now is betting snowcoaches will be the dominant mode of winter transportation, and he has a seven-vehicle fleet of snowcoaches to wager.
“We’re seeing the popularity of the snowcoaches escalate,” says Roberson, whose coaches carry 6 to 32 passengers. “It’s what’s happening. And I see that trend continuing. I think it’s an upward spiral.”
Not only is snowcoach travel from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful less expensive than a snowmobile trip--$89 versus approximately $200—but customers like the interpretation they receive from guides, something hard to get aboard a snowmobile.
“On the snowcoach, where they have communication with other people in the group or the guide, any time they want, they can say, ‘Hey, stop here, I want to take a photo,’” Roberson explains. “They can’t do that on a snowmobile trail because there’s no way to contact a guide to say they want to stop, and they’re not allowed to fall back out of the group (to stop on their own).”
While snowmobile and lodging business in West Yellowstone was down by roughly half last winter, according to Roberson, he believes the upward trend in snowcoach traffic will fill rooms and restaurants, and even give the town a new nickname.
“We’re soon going to be the ‘Snowcoach Capital of the World.’”
(My thanks to Jon Catton for the photo of a sunny day in Yellowstone)