Latest Yellowstone Studies Say Fewer 'Biles Mean Cleaner Air

Last month the president of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group that loves to rev its motorized toys across America's land-, and water-, scapes declared that the fact that snowmobiles still rumble through Yellowstone "represents one of the most profound victories over the extreme environmental movement in our lifetime."
That was more a political victory than anything else, and hardly profound, but Jack Welch's comment leads me to wonder how he'll attack the latest scientific reports that state that Yellowstone's air-shed would be cleaner with fewer snowmobiles roaring around?
Among the damning information contained in park's "Winter Air Quality Study, 2005-06" is that air quality in the park is much worse in the winter months than during the summer months, when there are nearly 60 times more vehicles tooling about Yellowstone.

And a companion study, prepared by Air Resource Specialists, a Colorado firm, concluded that of six alternatives now being studied for over-snow travel in Yellowstone, "the largest reductions in pollutant concentrations and emissions are seen under alternatives that allow only snow coaches, greatly limit over-snow vehicle entry, or implement 'improved' BAT (best available technology) for snowmobiles."

As I noted last month, in the weeks and months ahead we're going to be barraged with sound bites and possibly even theatrics as the latest Environmental Impact Statement into snowmobiling in Yellowstone nears its conclusion. And the trio of reports that has just come to light, courtesy of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, actually contain information that can be used for and against snowmobiles in the park.
For while the research leaves little, if any, doubt that snowmobiles impact the park's resources, the 2005-06 air quality report notes that, "at the present concentrations, these pollutants are not thought to represent a hazard to park staff or visitors." Of course, that begs the question, must we get sick before we recognize a hazard?
More so, right up front the report's executive summary states that snowmobile pollution the past two winters "may" have equaled that from snow coaches, the vehicles advocates for a cleaner, quieter Yellowstone have said will be much gentler on Yellowstone's environment.
Sadly lacking from that executive summary, though, is a qualifying statement that the emissions data were gleaned from snowmobile numbers roughly a third of the 720 a day allowed under the current Winter Use Plan. Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash tells me the scientists have models they can use to extrapolate the impacts of 720 machines a day from that small number, but you have to wonder.
The three reports -- the Winter Air Quality Study 2004-2005, the draft Winter Air Quality Study 2005-2006, and the Air Quality Modeling Report Snowmobile and Snowcoach Emissions -- are the latest in evolving snowmobile science from the park. Yet the conclusions they reach are not terribly earth-shattering when you compare them to the two other environmental impact statements, and the environmental assessment, that already have examined the snowmobile question and were unanimous in stating that the park would be healthier without the machines.
Among the latest reports' highlights:
* "The combination of reduced winter vehicle entries to the park and reduced emissions by snowmobiles have greatly reduced the CO (carbon monoxide) concentrations. Air quality has been stable or improving over the past three years." -- 2005-06 air quality report.
* "All of the winter periods have higher CO concentrations than summer." -- 2005-06 air quality report.
* "The changes that have driven the decreases in CO and PM2.5 concentrations are smaller numbers of snowmobiles entering the park and a switch to cleaner snowmobiles that meet BAT (best available technology), mostly by using 4-stroke engines in the snowmobiles." -- 2005-06 air quality report.
* The snowmobile BAT has reduced emissions, but snowmobiles are still much dirtier than light-duty cars and trucks." -- 2005-06 air quality report.
* "The small amount of improvement in air quality over the last three winters suggests that additional measures will have to be taken or the present air pollutant concentrations are likely to be the continuing condition." -- 2005-06 air quality study.
* "Since the current numbers (of snowmobiles) are below the allowed number of snowmobiles in the current Winter Use Plan, CO concentrations will go up if traffic increases. To maintain the currently allowed number of snowmobiles without degrading air quality further, further reductions in emissions will be needed." -- 2004-05 air quality report.
* "The park should continue with plans for cleaner snow vehicles and limits on the number of snowmobiles." -- 2004-05 air quality report.
* "A rough relationship between the number of daily snowmobiles at the West Entrance and the maximum CO concentrations accounts for 87 percent of the variability. This suggests that an increase in the average daily snowmobile traffic up to the allowed limit under the Winter Use Plan would result in greater carbon monoxide concentrations." -- 2004-05 air quality report.
* "The winter CO mean concentration in February now is nearly equal to the mean CO in July, the busiest visitation month." -- 2004-05 air quality report.
Over at the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the leadership is understandably vocal in urging the Bush administration to end its bid to allow snowmobiles to remain in Yellowstone.
"It is time for the Bush administration to be accountable to its own scientific studies and put clean air in Yellowstone National Park first instead of catering to the snowmobile industry," said Bill Wade, chair of the coalition's executive council. " The administration has ordered up endless studies, costing millions of tax dollars, all aimed at justifying a continuation of snowmobile use in Yellowstone, but the science doesn't support such a policy."
Rick Smith, a member of the coalition's executive council, added that the administration has before it a perfect opportunity to "restore the morale of the Park Service and the trust of the American people" by accepting the science and banning snowmobiles from Yellowstone. "It's high time to protect Yellowstone's unique winter environment by providing visitors with access using the modern, environmentally friendly snow coaches that are becoming increasingly popular," he added.
Rest assured, the administration won't call an end to its determined mission. Already Mary Bomar, the newly installed director of the National Park Service, has told senators she supports snowmobiles in the park. And then, too, there are sections of the 2005-06 report that no doubt are encouraging to snowmobilers.
For instance:
* " Air quality at both locations (West Yellowstone and Old Faithful) is good during the winter and is now well below the national air quality standards."
* The CO concentrations were about the same as last year despite a large increase in the number of winter vehicle entries (over last year's shorter season) at the west entrance."
* "The switch to 4-stoke engines for snowmobiles resulted in a 96 percent reduction in hydrocarbon emissions that contribute to particulate matter in the air."
But there are some numbers, expectations, and goals that Mary and Dirk need to keep in mind as this odyssey goes forward.
Buried on page 31 of the air quality modeling report is a chart that projects emissions pollution for each of the six alternatives currently in the mix. In terms of CO emissions, the alternative backing the current daily allowance of 720 snowmobiles would generate 177 tons of CO emissions, or nearly two tons per day, over the course of the winter season, another 17 tons per winter of hydrocarbon emissions, and 44 more tons of nitrogen oxides.
Under alternative four, which would allow upwards of 1,025 snowmobiles a day to enter the park, the CO emissions jump to 267 tons, the HC emissions to 29, and the NOx emissions to 62.
Alternative 2, the snow-coach only option, would produce but 37 tons of CO per winter, 17 tons of HC, and 44 tons of NOx.
Now, the park has to go through these scientific contortions because of the politics and the lawsuits that have prolonged this ordeal since 2000. But in reaching their preferred alternative, park officials and the Park Service hierarchy also must consider what's best for Yellowstone. Not only what's best for the park's Class I air-shed, which is supposed to contain the cleanest air possible, but what's best for upholding the National Park Service Organic Act's mandate that conservation of resources -- the air, the water, the soils, the wildlife, the natural soundscape -- is the utmost responsibility of the Park Service.
How can the agency possibly adhere to that mission if it ignores studies in hand that clearly spell out that snowmobile noise -- even at the reduced ridership of the past two years-- has been exceeding levels contained in the current Winter Use Plan, a plan that allows 720 snowmobiles, and when the latest clutch of reports points out that air quality improves when snowmobile numbers drop?
Then, too, are the expectations of the tens of thousands of Americans who voiced support for a ban when the Park Service gathered public comment during the first two EIS processes, the tens of thousands who called for a ban during scoping for the latest EIS, as well as those who, in response to newspaper polling, thought there should be limits on where snowmobiles go.
It's been said that public comment periods do not equate with a vote on the issue at hand. That might be so. But when the numbers are so overwhelmingly in favor of one desired outcome, and you have the scientific evidence to support your decision, how can you ignore that?
The world won't come to an end if recreational snowmobiles are banned from Yellowstone, nor will winter access to the park suddenly grind to a halt. Snow coaches -- newer, cleaner running snow coaches than the old Bombardiers that are still rumbling around the park on occasion -- will shuttle you into and out of the park. Lodging will still be available, the geysers will still erupt, the bison will still be shrouded in ice.
What will be missing will be the whining of snowmobiles that masks the gurgling Firehole River and obscures the roaring of Old Faithful, the eye-stinging fumes, and the occasional puddles of spilled oil, gasoline, and other machine fluids. Bison won't be rammed by snowmobiles, as has happened in the past, and there will be no high-marking along the hillsides that hold the Grand Loop.
In the coming weeks, the pace of this process will pick up markedly. On December 8th, park officials plan to meet in Cody, Wyoming, with officials from the "cooperating agencies," which are the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, officials from the surrounding counties, and representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, to outline the contents of the Draft EIS. In advance of that, the draft will be posted on Yellowstone's web site. It could be posted as early as the end of this week, or closer to the end of the month. Keep an eye out for it.
What will be telling in that draft is whether the Park Service attaches a preferred alternative to that document, and what that alternative recommends. Remember, if Yellowstone's natural resources can be overlooked, what park's can't?