There's a section of Yellowstone National Park not too far south of the park's West Entrance where access is tricky no matter what the season. But in winter, when the snow is deep, rogue snowmobilers find their way into the park to play.
The picture accompanying this post was taken February 21, 2008, by Bob Peterson, who spent 34 years with the National Park Service, including stints as chief ranger at Zion National Park and Everglades National Park. Earlier this month it and several others were forwarded by Mr. Peterson to Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis with hopes she somehow might be able to expend more resources to halt these incursions.
"Hopefully these will be helpful in your efforts to protect and manage park resources. Clearly, a portion of the public needs to receive a strong message from park management that disregard for regulations designed to protect the park, including snowmobile use off of designated routes, will not be tolerated," Mr. Peterson said in a letter to Superintendent Lewis.
"The park’s boundary south of the West Entrance is certainly difficult to manage under winter conditions that provide optimum opportunity for snowmobile trespass from the adjacent national forest. These national forest lands of course, share a common boundary with Yellowstone and are used intensively for winter recreation by snowmobiles," he added. "With disturbing regularity this activity crosses into the park. Undoubtedly, there is a prevalent attitude held by some snowmobilers that violation of park regulations is acceptable behavior, and that the risk of apprehension at times may be minimal."
Why the big deal over a few snowmobilers? In large part it's the principle of their flaunting the law and invading a national park. And part of it is due to the fact that rangers dispatched to chase them have better things to do.
"When a pattern of disregard for the rules that protect our first national park sets in, it threatens to devalue Yellowstone and set a dangerous precedent by allowing erosion of the high standards of resource protection that Americans have demonstrated time and again that they want upheld throughout the National Park System," says Bill Wade, who chairs the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
Beyond the principle, it can be dangerous for rangers to head out to the boundary region to chase snowmobilers. "Often, logs and stumps are just beneath the surface and the light is flat, making it difficult to see these dangers. It's a recipe for accidents," says the coalition. "NPS has to send two rangers on these patrols in case anyone becomes lost or injured or breaks down. The patrols take a full-day and require two high-performance, high-cost, snowmobiles -- the same two-stroke machines typically used by trespassers. The expense to taxpayers to purchase and maintain these machines stemmed almost exclusively from illegal snowmobile incursions."
Beyond those hazards, Yellowstone rangers are busy on a daily basis on the west side of the park, where they have to enforce speed limits along U.S. 191, respond to accidents, and investigate poaching.
Not to be overlooked is the damage to resources caused by these snowmobilers.
"The western portions of the park where snowmobile trespass has been chronic do not have a dense wildlife presence in winter because of deep snow," says the coalition. "However, this region of the park does include sensitive spots, including geothermal areas where vegetation continues to grow in winter because of heating. Sometimes these areas are used by animals struggling to survive Yellowstone's harsh winter conditions. Snowmobile trespass into these areas poses an additional burden. NPS has also documented and provided as evidence in court that snowmobilers trespassing into Yellowstone run over tops of trees and break them off."
What's the solution? According to the coalition, stiffer penalties -- possibly as stiff as seizing the sleds of those who invade the park illegally.
At Yellowstone, spokesman Al Nash says officials are aware of the snowmobile trespass.
“I know that our rangers do look into and deal with some incursions into the park on snowmobile. I don’t know how widespread it is. I do know it occurs,” says Ranger Nash. "There aren’t a lot of locations where that type of access would be very easy. But I know that we do have some instances. My understanding is it is primarily focused on the area surrounding West Yellowstone. But I don’t know what extent.
"I know we do boundary patrols on snowmobile where it’s feasible. So we are out there patrolling. But again, with the amount of area that we have for boundary, it’s certainly possible for somebody, if they’re determined, to get into the park unnoticed.”