If you pay any attention to the Blue Ribbon Coalition and its position on snowmobiles in Yellowstone, you know the group likes to tightly tie winter access to the park with snowmobiles, as if there were no other means to get in between December and April.
Back in October the group's president, Jack Welch, wrote a long, somewhat rambling, post in which he discussed the status of snowmobiling in Yellowstone this winter. Among his remarks was the following: "... let me offer my sincere gratitude to the snowmobile community who faithfully and generously supported Blue Ribbon efforts to defend our access to Yellowstone."
Of course, no one is denying coalition members access to the park. What's in question is their mode of transportation. But Jack's comments about access got me to wondering whether coalition members are so wedded to that transportation mode that they would forgo a winter trip to the park if there wasn't enough snow to 'bile?
Is the goal to see Yellowstone's many splendors in the winter, or simply to travel around the Grand Loop via snowmobile? Can you enjoy Yellowstone in winter without riding a snowmobile? That, of course, is a rhetorical question. Or it should be.
But as we head into the 2006-07 winter season in Yellowstone, the same snowmobile issues that have dogged the park the past six winters are back again. The same studies have stressed that 2- and 4-stroke snowmobiles -- and older model snowcoaches -- are polluting Yellowstone. The same federal government is continuing to spend millions of dollars on repetitive studies, millions of dollars that could be much better spent on needier issues within Yellowstone. And the same factions are jousting over winter access in the world's oldest national park.
As for the federal government's role, one has to wonder why it is slogging through its third environmental impact statement on the question of snowmobiles in the park. Not only have the latest studies reaffirmed what the studies associated with the past two EISes concluded, but winter access to Yellowstone will not end if snowmobiles are banned.
So who will suffer? Is Yellowstone only worth seeing if you see it from the back of a snowmobile?
Ironically -- deliciously so in some camps, no doubt -- in light of efforts in Congress to legislate snowmobiling in Yellowstone and the Bush administration's evident zeal to snowmobile in the park, the weather is threatening to do what groups concerned about the park's resources haven't yet been able to do: Keep snowmobiles out of the park.
With Yellowstone's winter season slated to open next Wednesday, the current paucity of snow could put a hold on snowmobiling in the park for the near term, unless, of course, a major storm slams the park. Two years ago a lack of early season snow forced a delay in snowmobiling in Yellowstone, and it could very well happen again this year.
Too, a lack of late-season snow can also be challenging, as the accompanying photo, taken in West Yellowstone in March 2005, demonstrates.
With climate change/global warming becoming more and more prominent across the globe, you have to wonder how it could affect Yellowstone's snowpack, and snowmobiling, in the winters ahead.
But -- and this is a big but -- one thing warming weather won't soon change is winter access to Yellowstone, as snowcoaches can travel into the park whether or not there's snow on the roads.
"If December 20 arrives with not enough snow for snowmobiling in the park, Yellowstone Vacations will be open to snowcoaches operating either on rubber tracks or tires," Randy Roberson, the company's owner, tells me. "This is how the winter season began two years and West Yellowstone's tour operators took more than 3,000 visitors into the park between December 15 and 31.
"One of the attributes of snowcoaches is that they have brought greater certainty to park access. We can carry visitors into Yellowstone regardless of how much snow accumulates at the start of the season and even if we get an early thaw at the end of the season, utilizing wheels or rubber tracks depending on road conditions," he added. "This ability to assure access is extremely important to businesses and of course to visitors who in many cases travel great distances to experience Yellowstone in the winter and do not have the opportunity to simply come back another time."
Hopefully, the snowstorms soon will blitz Yellowstone, enough so to allow winter access to both snowmobiles and snowcoaches on tracks. And hopefully the powers that be in both Yellowstone and the National Park Service soon will come to the reasonable and rationale conclusion that the current fleet of snowmobiles is not healthy for the park and its resources, its visitors and employees.
That conclusion will not halt access to Yellowstone in winter. Far from it. Instead, it will provide a gentler impact on the park.