Snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Environmental Extremists in the Obama Administration

National Park Mountain, Yellowstone National Park, in 1974, long before the park was a magnet for snowmobiles. NPS photo.

What are we to think when a U.S. senator brands Jon Jarvis, a highly respected regional director of the National Park Service, as representing "the extreme policies of the Obama administration"?

The answer, of course, is that the political pendulum has swung, and those who enjoyed the Bush years are already lamenting the Obama years.

The policies that Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, was referring to center on snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park and the senator's comment, made last week in the wake of Mr. Jarvis' confirmation hearing as National Park Service director, were aimed not so much at Mr. Jarvis personally but more likely at Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who last week lowered the bar somewhat on recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone. Where the Bush administration, aided by a federal judge in Wyoming, had OKed upwards of 720 snowmobiles per day in the park, Secretary Salazar cut that down to 318, along with 78 snowcoaches, for the next two winters while park officials once again try to serve their newest political masters in drawing up yet another winter-use plan for Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park.

Understandably, Sen. Barrasso and the rest of the Wyoming congressional delegation wouldn't mind an unlimited number of snowmobiles in the park on any given winter day, though they're willing to settle for 740 a day. To them snowmobilers mean money spent in Wyoming business (although, far and away the bulk of park snowmobilers enter from West Yellowstone, Montana, not via the entrances outside Cody or Jackson in Wyoming).

That's fair and well, for Washington pols live to serve their home states, despite the "U.S." that precedes their titles. What's unfortunate, though, is the tone in which Sen. Barrasso drove his point home. Here's a release his office issued after Mr. Jarvis's confirmation hearing:

U.S. Senator John Barrasso slammed the Obama administration’s threat to limit snow machine access to Yellowstone National Park at a Senate Energy Committee Hearing today. Senator Barrasso grilled Jon Jarvis, the nominee for director of the National Park Service.

The nominee’s responses to Barrasso’s questions were not reassuring. Barrasso believes Jarvis represents the extreme policies of the Obama administration. An administration that will put environmental ideology before the public interest.

Barrasso believes the philosophy of shutting the public out of our parks is deplorable and will be harmful to Wyoming and to parks nationwide. National Park Service wants to limit snowmobile and snow coach access into Yellowstone National Park.

The Obama Administration’s plan will roll back years of public input and court rulings. Visitors to Yellowstone will be robbed of reasonable and responsible access to the park. The Administration plan will halve the number of visitors to Yellowstone. It will have a significant impact on Wyoming’s gateway communities. The National Park Service move will leave small recreational businesses around Yellowstone in limbo. The proposed limits are below what was recommended by the Park Service less than two years ago.

But then, perhaps the senator intended to come across just that harshly. His highly partisan tone in general hasn't gone unnoticed in his home state of Wyoming, where one newspaper columnist noted that "Sen. Barrasso has become one of the most partisan people in the Senate. It seems he rarely works with folks across the aisle and seems to not care about working in Democrats at all. He has absorbed in full the total religion of the conservative side of the national Republican Party and there is little doubt where he will vote when it comes to partisan issues."

While the columnist when on to approve of the senator's style, details shouldn't be overlooked. While the senator is correct that there have been "years of public input and court rulings," his interpretation seems selective. For instance:

* Those who favor fewer snowmobiles in Yellowstone say public comment taken on the question of recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone -- the most commented upon issue in the entire history of the National Park Service -- has overwhelmingly favored a phase-out of snowmobiles in favor of snow coaches. More interesting than that general statement is a 2006 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the Bloomberg news service. It showed that while the Bush administration long advocated increased access for snowmobiles and other forms of motorized recreation in national parks such as Yellowstone, a substantial majority of the public opposed such measures. In the West, home to many of the nation's most popular parks, 80 percent called for limiting access to snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to protect natural habitat and wildlife. Nationally, the figure was 77 percent, according to the survey.

* A federal judge (granted, one in Washington, D.C., who seems to lean to the left when it comes to environmental issues), threw the National Park Service's most recent winter-use plan for the two parks out the window, saying it not only circumvented the National Park Service Organic Act but also pointed out that, "According to NPS's own data the (winter-use plan) will increase air pollution, exceed the use levels recommended by NPS biologists to protect wildlife, and cause major adverse impacts to the natural soundscape in Yellowstone. Despite this, NPS found that the plan's impacts are wholly 'acceptable,' and utterly fails to explain this incongruous conclusion."

* The ruling Sen. Barrasso most likely was referencing came from U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, a Wyoming-based jurist who snowmobile proponents usually look to to support their cause. In his ruling last November, the one that gave the Bush administration the opening it needed to direct the Park Service to boost to 720 the number of snowmobiles that could enter Yellowstone daily, Judge Brimmer held that, "the Court believes that the NPS thoroughly reviewed and investigated the effects of the final rule on the environment of the parks. The final rule promulgated by the NPS reflects this thorough review and investigation. Furthermore, the NPS has been designated an expert in this area, and should be given wide discretion when discharging its duties."

What both Judge Brimmer, and now Sen. Barrasso, seemed to overlook is that Yellowstone's own experts, the scientists who studied the park's air, water, land, and wildlife resources and the impacts snowmobiles had on them, recommended that no more than 250 snowmobiles per day be allowed into the park. Additionally, they seemingly turn a blind eye to the strings being pulled by the Interior Department and then-Vice President Cheney's office on snowmobiling in Yellowstone.

* Despite Sen. Barrasso's contention, reducing snowmobile numbers in Yellowstone is not "robbing" visitors of access to the park, and the new limits are unlikely to "halve the number of visitors to Yellowstone." Since the winter of 2003-04, when a firm cap of 720 snowmobiles per day was implemented, through the winter of 2007-2008 winter visitation has ebbed and flowed, ranging from a low of 252,508 during the winter of 2003-04 to a high of 297,357 the winter of 2007-2008. Last winter, when the judicial exchanges left things somewhat up in the air (the park had proposed a limit of 540 snowmobiles before it was bumped back up to 720), winter visitation dipped to 245,269.

According to Yellowstone's research, snowmobile usage seemed to begin sliding with the winter of 2002-2003, "prior to any change in winter access." For the last four winters (2003-2004 through 2006-2007), snowmobile numbers have averaged between 250 and 300 a day (a 72 percent decline between 2001-2002 and 2004-2005), the park's most recent environmental impact statement on winter use notes. Of course, possible factors influencing the decline range from uncertainty, given the ever-present litigation, over snowmobile limits, to poor snow years and even to decisions by snowmobile outfitters not to invest in "best available technology" machines and so forfeit trips into Yellowstone. Snowcoach use, however, has moved almost exactly in the opposite direction; between 2001-2002 and 2005-2006, snowcoach traffic has jumped 72 percent, with 34 coaches bringing 272 visitors into the park each winter day, on average, according to the park's statistics.

The change in visitors' preference for how they visit Yellowstone in winter is more evident when you look more closely at how visitors enter the park. During the winter of 2002-2003, 60,406 visitors came via snowmobile, while 12,154 traveled by snowcoach. This past winter saw 23,417 visitors arrive atop a snowmobile and 18,972 come inside a snowcoach, according to park statistics, which you can find at this site.

Sen. Barrasso was not available to discuss these trends. Being one of a handful of doctors in the Senate, most of his time these days is understandably spent on health-care reform. However, his press secretary, Greg Keeley, took a few moments to elaborate on the senator's position.

“If, as the administration wants to do, halve, or even more, put more restrictions on the operators, that’s going to have an enormously negative effect on operators in the gateway communities in Cody," said Mr. Keeley. “If there restrictions go ahead that they’re proposing at the moment, it will just be awful for the guys who are trying to run seasonal businesses.”

For Sen. Barrasso, the snowmobile issue is not "small potatoes," the spokesman said. "This is a very big deal for him. He’s fought every time we have an agreement with the environmentalists -- if you want to call them that -- put it back in court. And it’s just getting to the point ... it’s just going to get very difficult for the guys that are, 1) trying to see the park, and 2), folks that are trying to make a living taking folks through the park. They (the Obama administration) have no idea of the ramifications of all this stuff.”

Of course, if recent history has taught us anything, issues such as snowmobiles in Yellowstone will be constantly ping-ponged back and forth between Democrats and Republicans until reason comes to rule the day. Hasn't the time come that science truly is allowed to guide management decisions, and that all stakeholders agree to accept it?

Will it be the end of the world if snowcoaches are the only way to ride into Yellowstone in the winter? The gateway communities will evolve to meet that need, as some outfitters already have. What will fall by the wayside, and no doubt with much relief, will be the seasonal histrionics that arise over winter-use in the parks and the millions of dollars being wasted on studies and lawyers, millions that could be much better spent on other more pressing national park issues.


I have been to Yellowstone 3 times and spent at least a week there each time-always in absolute amazement. I see this whole issue as a way to truly limit human interaction in national parks by certain groups. While I have never been there in the Winter, but it is on my bucket list, I see no problem with using snowmobiles. Their use requires them to stay on roads, just as cars and bikes do in the summer. Are these these next? I will be willing to bet so. I consider myself a decent amateur photographer, and one of my concerns with the snow coaches are the severe limitation that is put on my hobby and the main reason I go to the parks. Not many run at sunrise and sunsets or allow me the time to get the "perfect" shot at the perfect location. I have used the bus system in both Zion and Denali--Denali wins hands down for my style of use because they allow a person to get on and off at any location anywhere in the park. Not the best for getting the "perfect" picture since sometimes you have only seconds but bearable. It is still not my preference. This type of bus transportation would not work in Yellowstone in winter due to the harsh weather. I guess I am not smart enough to see the "damage" to the parks that these "few bad snowmobiles" do to an enviroment of 2.2 million acres.

In response to Leland22: I've been to Yellowstone a few times, full week couple of them, Spring through Fall. I've also used the bus system in both Zion & Denali (lived in Fairbanks, AK couple years, now Colorado). I say this just so you know I've experienced some of the same things you have. I agree a bus system wouldn't work so well in Yellowstone (& that Denali's is pretty good), but I think you might be making some assumptions that should be clarified before any conclusions are made. I have not been into Yellowstone during the winter either (also on my list), but I do know that pollution - noise & otherwise - is different in winter than summer. Noise tends to carry farther, combustion pollution can hang closer to the ground & accumulate. I do not know if this plays into the test results, but it is a question to ask/consider. Additionally, do the snowmobiles have to stay on the road? I ask because the only time I have ever seen snowmobiles on the road was in Fairbanks. All other snowmobiles I've seen have been off-road. Again, just asking for clarification. As to limiting "human interaction" by "certain groups" - seems to me they're limiting use of certain machines, but not saying certain groups of people are banned - just how they enter/move around. I'm not saying I'm for or against - but I am in favor of keeping a balance between our use, & keeping the parks healthy enough for us to want to 'use'. If they say I can't drive my car in, but provide another means of access, then I'm willing to make the 'sacrifice'. But then again, I'm also willing to get out & walk, to really appreciate the nature. All-in-all, from what I've seen in the couple dozen or so National Parks I've been to, the goal has not been to keep people out, it has been to try to find the balance between the 'nature' they're charged to protect, & letting us experience it, as the people they are charged to protect it for... I guess I agree with Kurt's final paragraph - would it be the end of the world to put the limits on, communities will evolve to make money on whatever the change is (we seem to be very good at that), & there are better ways to spend all the money going to lawyers, etc. But then again, I also lean toward less rhetoric, & more science, so...

What are we to think when a U.S. senator brands Jon Jarvis, a highly respected regional director of the National Park Service, as representing "the extreme policies of the Obama administration"?

The answer, of course, is that the political pendulum has swung, and those who enjoyed the Bush years are already lamenting the Obama years.

Kurt, no sooner do I pledge to cool my political grandiloquence on this web site, then do you throw this temptation before me. It's Sunday morning, I want to relax and not be aggravated, so I refuse to read any further of this post than these two sentences.

All I will do is thank God once again that those lamenting the Obama years have occasion to do so. Imagine the heads of the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and, yes, the regional director of the National Park Service, actually caring about the missions for which their agencies were created. It's wonderful.


Snowmobile use in Yellowstone should be completely banned for the following reasons. Despite being told to stay on the existing roads, snowmobilers can and do go off-road into the backcountry. This does two things. It stresses out the wildlife that are trying to survive the brutal Yellowstone winter and it creates an unbelievable amount of noise and pollution that should not be tolerated in a National Park whether on or off-road. There are plenty of Yellowstone visitors in winter who agree with me. When the National Park service asked for public input on this matter, the overwhelming response was ban or greatly limit snowmobile use in Yellowstone. The National Parks in this country deserve the highest level of preservation, which means eliminating activities such as snowmobiling.

The "public" is already "shut out" of the interior of Yellowstone in the winter (the northern road between Cooke City Mt. and Gardiner Mt. is plowed and open to all). The interior is open only to those rich enough to afford the several hundred dollars that it costs per person to rent a snowmobile and a professional guide. Even a snowcoach ride into Old Faithful and back runs several hundred dollars for a family of four. In other words, for the vast majority of every day folks......Forgeta 'bout it!
What they should do is eliminate snowmobiles altogether (which polls have indicted the vast majority of people would like to see happen); and increase snowcoaches with fares that the average person could afford. By getting rid of snowmobiles and funneling the additional volume into coaches, it should be possible to bring prices down dramatically. Coaches could then become "kangaroo" (hop on, hop off) rather than just tours (or you could offer both, such as they do with summer busses in Denali).

This same issue has occurred everytime the NPS has attempted to move people from their personal vehicles to mass transit. The business community around the parks screams that no will come to the parks if they can't drive into parks in their own cars/ snow machines. This happened in Zion, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Denali when they first proposed mass transit systems to handle the massive congestion. It each case the businesses have been able to adjust and prosper. Having experienced both Zion and the Grand Canyon at their summertime peak travel via automobile and via the mass transit systems I'll take the efficiency of mass transit any time over being stuck in a traffic jam and waiting over 30 minutes for a parking space to open as happened to me in Zion one summer. For years I personally refused to visit the Grand Canyon or Zion during peak season UNTIL they instituted their bus systems.

I live in Wyoming and have been to Yellowstone in winter - both riding a snowmachine and taking the snowcoach and staying overnight at Old Faithfull.
Snowmachines are not the same as cars - they are much noisier and have far more emissions - even the new ones. The sled-heads I know enjoy off-roading and high speeds - neither are allowed in the park. There are lots of places nearby in both Wyoming and Montana where sledheads can find all the untracked powder they want. Frankly, putting along on a snowmobile at 35 miles per hour along the road in Yellowstone for hours and hours is dull - and if travelling with friends, conversation and exchange is very limited unless you stop constantly. In a snowcoach you can converse and share the sights with each other, and if you want to stop the drivers are quite willing.
At Old Faithful, there is incredible relief felt when the last noisy snowmachines head for home (by late afternoon in order to beat the dark and extreme cold) and quiet and clean air descend on the park.
What people need to realize about Yellowstone in winter is that the place is so vast, and the climate so harsh, that visitors hopping on and off a snowcoach would be flirting with hypothermia before the next one came along. If you stay overnight, you can get out at anytime you want to and take all the photos you like at your own pace.
Yellowstone in winter is incredible - the cold makes the thermal features even more exquisite - with each flying drop of expelled hot water trailing a thin line of steam that hangs even longer in the cold air. The quiet of the snow covered landscape makes every sound seem amplified - whether the huff of a bison or the angry whine of a snowmachine. I suspect that most visitors would prefer to hear the former.

Anon: I live just outside the north gate of Yellowstone and am very familiar with Yellowstone in the winter. When I suggest "hop on, hop off" I mean, of course by individuals prepared for the winter cold such as someone going for a snowshoe/ski. They already have a coach that takes skiers to Indian Creek Campground and drops them off so they can ski back to Mammoth. What if I want to ski around Norris or some other area at my own pace? The coach to Norris is a tour.....everybody stay together, we leave in x number of minutes. With hop on, hop off, you could choose to wait for the next coach which would run every hour or so, with an extra empty coach before dark. Of course no one would be allowed to "hop off" in a blizzard or dressed in flip flops and a tank top! If people can be "trusted" to dress properly for hours on a snowmobile, I think they could be trusted to dress properly for a couple of hour snowshoe up to Virginia Cascade!

Amen, Mark, amen, amen, amen. Keep the darned snowmobiles out! The snow coaches are there for visitors, and the snowmobilers can't follow the rules. It happens all over---the snowmobilers (and ATVers) think they own the place, leaving the rest of us smelling their fumes, listening to their noise, and repairing their damage to the environment.

New Mexico

Not limiting access to people, only use of snow machines! I believe snowshoeing and nordic skiing are activities allowed in many areas. Limited mobility? Use the snow coaches.

I am a die hard environmentalist, a Life member of the Sierra Club, and a generous contributor to environmental causes. I also own snowmobiles. I have snowmobiled in Yellowstone and it is an incredible experience. It should be on everyone's "bucket list". I can tell you that I did not see any indication that anyone was going off into the back country and everyone was very respectful any wildlife they encountered. There are park rangers on snowmobiles with radar guns strictly enforcing the speed limits and ticketing anyone who drove outside of the lines. I was given a stern warning for parking with one of my front skis on top of the berm.
We rode the entire loop from West Yellowstone, where 10 of us rented machines, in one long
8+ hour day. It was great to be able to stop where and when we wanted to, as opposed to being in a snow coach.
I would not want to deny this experience to anyone who wished to enjoy it. I am for limiting the number of
snowmobiles that can enter per day, and requiring that they be four stroke rather than two stroke machines.
They are much quieter and way less polluting.
There are limits on the number of permits to raft the Colorado River, another thing that should be on your bucket list, and limits to the number of back country permits issued in many parks. I think that with sensible regulation we can all enjoy and preserve our National Treasures for many years to come.