Commentary: Who Runs the National Park System?

Do gateway communities to national parks expect too much from those parks? How was tiny Cody, Wyoming, able to reverse the National Park Service's stance on closing Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone to snowmobiling? NPS photo.

Who runs the National Park System? Is it the National Park Service, or communities that stoke their economies off the parks? That's a good question to consider in the wake of the moxie and clout that tiny (pop. roughly 9,000) Cody, Wyoming, summoned to turn the heat up on its golden goose, Yellowstone National Park.

What "hold card" did Cody pull to convince Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis to reverse the park's stance that it's just too dangerous and costly to maintain winter access through the park's east entrance and over 8,530-foot Sylvan Pass?

How did Cody in six months of meetings, some held in secret, convince the Park Service to reverse a safety and fiscal decision, while the American public in tens of thousands of written comments, backed by science produced by the park's own researchers, submitted during the most recent Environmental Impact Statement saga couldn't sway the park to phase-out recreational snowmobile use in the park?

They say public comment periods on park management proposals are not "votes," and yet when you examine the comments received on the question of keeping Sylvan Pass open, the feat Cody seems close to pulling off -- Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder still needs to approve it -- is stupendous:

Public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ran from March 27 to June 5, 2007. Comments favoring closure of Sylvan Pass outnumbered those who wanted it kept open by 24 to 1. In raw numbers, 13,658 favored closure of Sylvan Pass and the East Entrance in winter and 562 stated support for keeping the pass and entrance open.

Pointed out in the comments of those opposed to maintaining winter access over the pass was that closure would be consistent with NPS law and policy; that the costs of plowing do not justify the small visitor numbers; that funds spent on plowing and providing avalanche control could be put to better use (hiring additional winter staff for enforcement and services); that the East Entrance has always had low visitor numbers; that keeping the pass open is dangerous to staff; that keeping the pass open is unique in the National Park System -- no other discretionary oversnow road in the U.S. uses active avalanche control measures; that no other national parks use artillery for controlled avalanches; and keeping the pass open sets a dangerous precedent for other parks.

Not only is Cody relatively tiny, population-wise, but it's also located 53 miles east of Yellowstone. And yet it was able to summon the political might -- very likely from as high up as Vice President Dick Cheney's office, in light of the vice president's Wyoming ties -- to overturn a decision based on cost and safety.

That decision drew applause from the editorial board of Wyoming's largest paper, the Casper Star-Tribune, and had Superintendent Lewis trying to put a "that's the cost of business" spin on the fact that last year's snowmobile traffic over Sylvan Pass translated into a cost-benefit ratio of $645.37 per person when you consider the nearly $300,000 the park spent ensuring the pass was safe, or at least presumably safe, from avalanches.

...the Park Service should be commended for finally listening to what local authorities maintained all along: that avalanches at Sylvan Pass can be successfully managed for a reasonable cost by the use of howitzers and explosives deployed by a helicopter crew, wrote the newspaper.

After some initially ridiculous assertions by the Park Service about the costs of avalanche control, the decision ended up not costing Wyoming too much, crowed the editorial board.[/i]

The National Park Service, which came out of the negotiations agreeing to somehow pay for the winter maintenance, can't be too happy with that last statement. Indeed, neither Cody nor Park County nor the state of Wyoming guaranteed that they would pony up any money to help pay for maintaining the pass in winter. Instead they offered only to work "in good faith ... to explore funding of safety and access improvements...."

These are not easy decisions for any park superintendent, and specifically not for the superintendent of perhaps the world's most visible park. Just the same, when you consider that hundreds of thousands of Americans from across the country wrote the Park Service during the multiple public comment periods held on the question of recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone to say they wanted snowmobiles phased out in favor of cleaner-operating snowcoaches, you do have to wonder how a small town 53 miles away from the park can wield so much leverage in favor of so relatively few tourists.

If Cody can be the tail that wags Yellowstone, will Moab begin to look for more from Canyonlands or Arches national parks? What might be on the wish-lists of Estes Park, nestled at the front door to Rocky Mountain National Park, or Cherokee, North Carolina, which guards an entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or Bar Harbor outside Acadia National Park?

The folks who make their livelihoods off Cape Hatteras National Seashore are pulling their political strings. After seashore officials, under threat of a lawsuit over their failure to produce an off-road vehicle use plan, earlier this spring reached an out-of-court settlement, local officials turned to their congressional connections with a request that they, in effect, nullify that settlement. This is not to say flatly that the locals don't have a point when they claim the settlement's provisions go too far, but rather that political solutions rarely are the best when it comes to managing the national parks.

Let's not forget, after all, that these are national parks with a national constituency, not state parks or city parks. What the above cases reflect are local complaints that don't necessarily take into account the national interests that should apply, no?

"Basing the management of Cape Hatteras on the desires of a handful of special interests would do a disservice not only to the wildlife and natural resources the seashore was created to protect, but also to thousands of visitors who travel to the seashore to enjoy those same resources each year," a Defenders of Wildlife attorney said in response to the effort by Dare (North Carolina) County, Hyde County, and a number of ORV groups to have Congress pass legislation to overturn the settlement's provisions.

The Cody and Cape Hatteras experiences raise the question of whether Park Service decisions should be based on what's best for the gateway communities or what's best for the parks. There's no doubt that parks owe a lot to their gateway communities and so should be cognizant of how their decisions impact those communities. But should those gateway communities also have an obligation in return to the parks? Should gateway communities be expected to develop sustainable economies that benefit both their residents and the parks without continually seeking more and more from the parks?

“There’s just been this reoccurring history of the communities feeling a real sense of entitlement and that the park is there, basically, to generate economic activity in their communities,” says Dennis Glick of the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit that promotes community decisions that respect the land and people of the West. “There really has been a sense of entitlement. ‘How many feathers can we pluck from the golden goose?’”

In Alaska, how much of the Park Service's decision to increase the number of cruise ships to Glacier Bay National Park was related to former Gov. Frank Murkowski's complaints that the agency was too slow in boosting the number of cruises?

Bill Wade, whose long Park Service career included a posting as superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, recalls a time when he "tried to close two sections of the Skyline Drive during several months in the winter to save snowplowing and patrol effort. These two sections in total accounted for less that 20 percent of the total travel to the park during those months. But the local community of Front Royal raised a ruckus and got the Virginia (congressional) delegation to call (NPS Director Roger) Kennedy and protest. I ended up facing the entire delegation to try to justify my decision. Lost hands down!"

If you've ever visited Great Smoky, you no doubt are well aware of the tourist gauntlet that exists in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, Tennessee, near the park's Tennessee entrance. Owen Hoffman, another with a Park Service career on his resume, points out that "the huge commercial development in this now gigantic gateway community complex acts like a tourist filter, becoming a tourist goal in and of themselves, and becoming a tourist filter in such a manner that only the dedicated brave the traffic to enter the park itself to enjoy an afternoon's drive or hike."

"However," he adds, "this gateway complex has become so large that light pollution has become severe, substantially affecting star gazing from the observation tower on Clingmans Dome.

Mr. Hoffman, whose NPS career included stops at Zion and Yosemite national parks, says that whenever he returns to Zion he cringes "at witnessing the growth that Springdale has experienced over the decades since I last wore the NPS uniform in this great park (1969). This small rural Mormon village has now become semi-urban. It too has become a significant source of light pollution along with Hurricane, and St. George, and development now encroaches on the entrance into Zion Canyon itself."

When he was stationed in Yosemite, one of Mr. Hoffman's most popular campfire talks was titled "Of Ice and Men." That program revolved around "threats to the park experience and the park's resources caused by increased commercialism, traffic, and pollution generated far beyond the park boundaries."

"This talk was quite effective," he recalls. "Perhaps, in today's politically charged climate someone inside the NPS might have requested that I 'tone it down.'"

Is the Park Service losing control over the system to gateway communities that are lucky enough to have clout in Washington?

Concerning the decision involving Yellowstone and snowmobiles from Cody, one of the questions begging an answer is how the Park Service, after spending millions of dollars drafting and then finalizing an Environmental Impact Statement with a preferred alternative on the issue, can, essentially, go back in and not just tinker with but entirely reverse part of that alternative? Will that cast a cloud of doubt over the integrity of future EIS work in Yellowstone or other parks?

Mr. Wade, now chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' executive council, doesn't profess to have the solution. But he offers that until there are some changes in the decision-making process established by the National Environmental Policy Act, perhaps to change the emphasis currently given economic issues when park management issues are being made, "it isn't likely to get any better."

"Maybe it will take some economic incentives to work in favor of park values and benefits. The idea of trying to prevent other smaller gateway communities from becoming like Estes Park or Gatlinburg or Springdale is worthy of consideration as part of the Centennial issue," he says.

Mr. Hoffman believes it will take a groundswell to change the current playing field.

"I believe our national parks should be protected such that a park visitor can enjoy pure air and water, undisturbed ecosystems, natural soundscapes, and night skies free from light pollution. But, what happens when the quest to protect the natural resource effectively limits (or is even perceived to limit) the economic growth of local and regional communities?" he wonders. "Some years ago, I once posed this question to a superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park during a meeting at the U of TN, but only received silence to my query.

"The parks and the National Park Service need to build a strong public constituency that cares deeply about resource protection. Building a public constituency for the park's resources should be one of the main goals of the National Park Service," he says. "In the absence of a strong public constituency, politicians representing commercial interests, including gateway and regional businesses and park concessions, will end up exerting more than their fair share of influence over how parks are managed, including the decision as to who is selected to become park superintendent."

There no doubt is a symbiotic relationship between parks and their gateway communities. But when one side, whether it's the parks or the gateways, begins to dominate to the detriment of the other, is that acceptable?

Of course, the questions raised above generate at least one more: Should special-interest groups, either of the environmental or business persuasion, also continue to be allowed to run to the nearest court to challenge park decisions they don't like? That, my friends, is fodder for another column.


If read lots of opinion on the issue, but I feel I miss some hard facts. If this about the city of Cody as such? With 53 miles the city seems a bit far off to be that interested.

While searching for background information I came across the FAQ of an outfitter and snowmobile tour guide at They specifically mention Pahaska Tepee as being cut off from business with snowmobiling in the National Park. That lodge, the former hunting lodge of Buffalo Bill, now family owned by Bob and Angela Coe, with rooms from midscale to family oriented rates is located only two miles outside the park on the road to Cody. Their mailing address does not use the nearest ZIP code of Wapiti, WY (82450), but that of Cody, WY (82414). In former years they made 80-85% percent of their winter income with snowmobilers - In 2007 they had to close the lodge, lay off their staff and cancel all reservations because of 26 days at the beginning of the season, the pass was closed for 10 days - - Bob Coe is on the board of the National Forest Recreation Association - - and his issue with the pass and his snowmobiles goes back to at least 1996 - -, when he bought 40 snowmobiles and led protesters who complained about closures even then: "They can spend $ on wolves - why can’t they spend it on us?" - that were of course the closures due to federal budget struggles.

That's it so far. You are closer to the issue then I am, pick up the lead and see, if it leads somewhere.

Yes, when looking at these things, it's important not to reduce this to Cody - you can rest assured that most of Cody wasn't involved with this, either (whatever the local attitudes were or weren't). State Sen. Colin Simpson, who was heavily involved with this, is the son of former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson.

Who exactly was "Shut Out of Yellowstone", the group that sprung overnight to fight this?

It's too simple to put this on a gateway community; who are the people involved? What interests do those who take action have at stake, and what are their interests with the levers of power?

Interesting you fingered Cheney; a long series in the Washington Post a couple years back, Cheney got directly involved in the Yellowstone cutthroat issue, though no one would have guessed he'd have put himself into such a minute issue. You, of course, don't know if Cheney was involved here, but it's not out of the question. Someone higher than Suzanne Lewis was involved with the decision; she didn't suddenly see the light (as you said, it makes no sense).

Small numbers of people are always the one that make change - this is one for the worse; but it's always true you won't find that many people behind any significant change. When society is as large as it is, that's both an empowering thought (for those of us who would like to bring change) and a scary thought (to think that we could have such consequences when we are playing with a fire this large has to be really daunting to anyone would would try). I don't begrudge small groups of people from being so effective; what's upsetting was that this was the kind of change that they made, that they are no doubt heavily connected with the levers of power, and the net result is the shelling of Yellowstone National Park with ordnance - some of which is still unexploded in Yellowstone.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

The number of snowmobilers who want to enter Yellowstone thru Cody is and has always been small compared to the other entrances. YNP is not the only place where these few can ride during the winter. In my opinion, a huge expense and risk for just a few.

On the quote "They can spend $ on wolves- why can't they spend it on us?", literally millions of dollars have been brought into the entire Greater Yellowstone area by people hoping to see and/or hear a wolf. Millions of dollars also made from wolf t-shirts, coffee cups, etc. Talk about money well spent !

As a former Director of the National Park Service I can tell you that this ruckous over Sylvan Pass is not unusual. Usually, if you trace an issue like this back to it's source, you find a few. srtrident local people who stand to make money based on the decision. They usually don't care what the decision will cost the tax payer or whether or not it makes sense from a resource management point of view.

They may be snow mobilers, off road vehicle users or a variety of other users. They are usually vocal and well connected politcally. Cody, Wyoming residents have had a strong voice in National Park Service policy for years but they are not the only ones.

If they don't get what they want, their congressional representatives will threaten to punish NPS management in a number of ways including the blockage of funding. It is a way of life--like the tail wagging the dog. It appears to be especially true in western parks where local people seem to to lay the strongest claim on the management of federal lands. You don't usually see New Yorkers trying to run Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty. You don't usually find Washington, D.C. trying to run the Washington monument.

It is hard to explain, but that is the way it is and I doubt it will change soon.

In several posts, you've implied that "science" has argued in favor of phasing out all recreational snowmobile use in the Park. However, the post you link to identifies the "preferred alternative" as being 540 snowmobiles a day - which doesn't seem like a phaseout to me....

In terms of the broader proposal, I think that it would be best to avoid the "or" in your opening question. National Parks need to be run in some form of partnership with the gateway communities.

At the end of the day, the biggest enforcement budget in the world won't be able to do as much to protect the Parks as gateway communities that are invested in the long-term health and well-being of the Parks. Moreover, I think that there are many Park Superintendents out there who can tell you that a gateway community at odds with the National Park Service can make life one giant headache for Park Rangers and managers.

Secondly, the perception that Parks are damaging to the well-being of gateway communities is one of the primary factors that are working against the expansion of Parks and the establishment of new Parks. It doesn't help that many of the "hottest issues" in the Park System today are inherently cross-boundary issues like air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, and viewscape preservation. There are many important resources out there that would do well to be preserved in the National Park System, but there is often staunch local resistance to Park establishment or expansion.

Don't get me wrong, I think that Gatlinburg, TN is quite the abomination and I'm as baffled as anyone by the Sylvan Pass decision. Nevertheless, despite these mistakes, I think that it would be a bigger mistake to paint the National Park Service is being inherently at odds with gateway communities - wherever they may be...


Over the nearly three years that I've been following the Yellowstone snowmobile saga on the Traveler I've cited and pointed to many reports that have addressed the pollution load of snowmobiles via snowcoaches and which have said the best way to reduce impacts to the park would be to phase out snowmobiles.

You can find one such story here.

Here is some of the pertinent information from that post:

* "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.

And if you look at page 20 of this report, you'll see where even the park's scientists themselves point out that politics often trumps science. Here's the pertinent snippet:

However, science cannot resolve issues where policy is advocated due to values judgments and perceptions about what is appropriate in national parks (Sarewitz 2004). As Creel et al. (2002) discussed, various constituencies have strong values and beliefs about the primary purpose of the park (i.e., recreation vs. conservation) and acceptable levels of impact (i.e., behavioral vs. physiological vs. population).

Also, I've pointed out in the past how park officials had to alter the parameters of what constitutes an impact in noise levels to justify their preferred alternative.

Finally, I believe the park's "environmentally preferred" alternative (which you can find in Chapter 2 at this site) calls for phasing out snowmobiles in favor of snowcoaches. Indeed, the park's "no action" alternative calls for snowcoach only recreational travel, a decision based on the previous EISes.

I think there is a difference between a report that indicates that snowmobiles would have more impact on the environment and snow coaches and concluding that science dictates that there must be no snowmobiles in the Park. After all, an EIS on the Grand Circle Road would surely show increased air pollution, noise pollution, and stress on animals as well. Almost any recreational use for "enjoyment of the people" will have some impact on the environment. Pretty much short of managing all of Yellowstone National Park as Federally-designated Wilderness areas, there will be the need to make some balance between recreational use and environmental impacts. To reduce the argument to the salient point - I find it highly unlikely that a single snowmobile in Yellowstone National Park would cause significant harm to the environment. Obviously tens of thousands of snowmobiles would be a major problem. Yet, a snowmobile provides a unique recreational experience for visitors - in some cases it allows for independent travel and a more solitary experience. It also puts the visitor in closer contact with the winter elements of the Park. It would seem sensible then, to allow a sustainable level of snowmobiles that would still leave the Yellowstone environment unimpaired for future generations.


You're right that almost any recreational use "for enjoyment of the people" will have some impact. I don't think anyone questions that. So the goal should be to aim for the least impacting activity, no?

After all, it's been accepted, even by the courts, that the Park Service's primary mandate is to conserve (or preserve, depending on whom you talk to) those resources for future generations. With that as a given, if you have two forms of recreation -- in this case snowmobiling and snowcoach tours -- that overlap in their primary purpose, which is to navigate Yellowstone in winter for enjoyment, and one is more environmentally intrusive than the other, shouldn't the Park Service support the less-intrusive form of recreation?

As for that "unique recreational experience," well, that experience can be attained on adjacent Forest Service lands, no? In fact, an argument could be made that more of a recreational experience can be had on Forest Service lands where snowmobile trails leave the roads. In Yellowstone snowmobiles are required, (though not all do, unfortunately), to stay on the groomed road surfaces, not head off trail. So why is a snowmobile ride through the park so unique? If you want to see the major thermal features, you have to park the snowmobile in the parking area and walk. And the contention that snowmobiling offers a more solitary experience doesn't really ring true, either, as the existing rules call for guided snowmobile tours.

As for your tossing off of the scientific reports, well, the reports (and the analysts) speak for themselves and were used not only to identify the environmentally preferred alternative but also point to acceptable levels of snowmobile traffic if the park decided it couldn't accept the environmentally preferred alternative or the no action alternative.

Hello Betty,
I read your opinion and feel the same. I would much rather spend my $$.$$ to hear a wolf singing than to hear exploding bombs which fall on the face of Yellowstone from some chopper (not so high above the tree tops.) Do we really want to blow up Yellowstone just so that a few people can ride snowmobils? With the "out of control" fuel costs their may be even fewer snowmobils out there but the bombs must still fall (to maintain winter trails.) AMERICA...I ASK, "WHAT'S MORE IMPORTANT?" Sincerely,
Paula Jean Tyler