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Winter, A Season of Discontent When It Comes to Travel in Yellowstone National Park

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Lone Star Geyser and skiers.

What is the best way to visit Yellowstone National Park in winter? NPT file photo.

There are times during the hardest of Rocky Mountain winters, when the mercury slides far below zero, that Yellowstone Lake’s heavy mantle of ice grinds and groans under the pressure of shifting flows. Snow can fall so deeply on Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming’s northwestern corner that workers at times must clamber onto the rooftops of lodges and cabins to shuck off the drifts so they don't collapse the roofs.

And after the storms are spent, when the sun slowly scales cerulean skies and flares the crystal-coated lodgepole and Ponderosa pines and the steam-wrapped faces of bison, you stand in awe at the landscape. And you listen to it, as well. To the guttural throttling of Old Faithful, Castle, and Riverside geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin. To the splashing and bubbling of hot waters from the springs. To the raspy calls of stellar jays and howls of wolves.

These are the things that lure thousands of visitors to the world’s oldest national park during its harshest of seasons. While there are those who ski or snowshoe into the park, far and away most arrive on the backs of snowmobiles or within the coaches of track-clad vans and buses. Though seemingly insignificant in this incredible setting, these conveyances are responsible for one of, if not the, most contentious issues ever to confront the National Park Service.

While the debate surrounding over-snow vehicles in the park dates back decades, in just the past ten years the Park Service has spent a reported $11 million on resource-impact studies and monitoring. At least 850,000 people -- closer to 900,000 when you consider the latest temporary winter-use rule -- have commented on snowmobiles in the park, with about 80 percent of those folks supporting a phase-out of snowmobiles, according to park officials.

This winter’s plan, which goes into play effect Tuesday when the park opens its gates to over-snow travel (although a paucity of snow might force companies to put the wheels back on their coaches and park the snowmobiles), was delivered by fiat from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Back in July he ordered daily limits of 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches this winter and next and told Yellowstone officials to take another shot at developing a sound and defensible winter-use plan. And so park officials are embarking on their fourth environmental impact statement on the issue.

Perhaps one problem to achieving an acceptable solution is that the National Park Service seems mired in an effort to justify one form of transportation over another, or both side by side, rather than asking the more basic question of should there be over-snow travel in Yellowstone in winter?

Regardless, it has been said that if you wait long enough, a study will arrive to bolster your point of view. In a new book, Repairing Paradise, the Restoration of Nature in America’s National Parks, author William Lowry points out that “(T)he impact of scientific evidence on policy change proposals is not always clear, and the role of science in recent political debates on many issues has been controversial. Different sides often present their own versions and interpretations of scientific evidence.”

And that seems to be the case in the long, meandering, and politically charged path Yellowstone managers have followed in trying to develop a winter-use plan. While each of the first three EISes pointed out that snowcoaches were the environmentally preferred alternative for over-snow travel in the park, technological advances have led to cleaner-running 4-stroke snowmobiles and narrowed, if not eliminated, the past disparities, according to Yellowstone officials. Not long after Secretary Salazar established the over-snow limits, park officials were disseminating snippets of reports that they said showed that snowmobiles have no greater impact on the resources than do snowcoaches.

* “Best available technology” engines have reduced snowmobile emissions so much that they are “are now very similar in their per passenger emissions” with snowcoaches, park officials noted.

* Snowcoaches fluster wildlife slightly more so than snowmobiles, due to the rig’s larger profile, they said.

* Noise studies show the two over-snow vehicles are comparable when it comes to noise, they pointed out.

Indeed, as they continue to assess winter travel, at times it appears that Yellowstone officials have developed a bias, or push back, against snowcoaches after all the previous studies that implicated snowmobiles as the foremost source impacting the park’s resources.

* In briefing the Obama administration’s Interior Department staff on the winter-use issue in March 2009, Yellowstone officials portrayed snowcoaches as fuelish (“coaches typically get 3-4 miles per gallon; snowmobiles get 20 mpg”) and uncomfortable (“many current coaches are not optimal for winter viewing....cramped, with windows that fog or ice up in cold weather”) while describing snowmobiles as having improved dramatically, technology-wise, with the advent of 4-stroke snowmobiles.

* In that briefing paper, park officials said the commercial guiding requirement provides “excellent service to visitors, outstanding safety, and accountability...” And yet, in February 2006, with the guiding requirement in place, a woman was killed when she crashed her snowmobile off the road between Norris and Canyon.

Those who favor snowcoach-only travel question the park's data, noting that the emissions study compared “best available technology” snowmobiles against a mix of old and new technology snowcoaches rather than only the best snowcoach technology, which, just as 4-stroke snowmobiles are cleaner than their older 2-stroke relatives, makes the newer coaches decidedly cleaner than the older ones; that there are more snowmobiles in the park than snowcoaches, and so more opportunities to startle wildlife; that soundscape studies certainly seem to indicate that noise goes down when snowmobile numbers go down.

John Sacklin, a management assistant in the park who has worked on the winter-use issue for at least the past decade, denies there’s a bias against snowcoaches. But he did maintain during an interview that “when you sit in a 15-passenger van on a cold day, you cannot see out...” and that the coaches “rut” the snow-covered roads. He also acknowledged that heavy snowmobile traffic can create “washboard” conditions in the snow surface.

“As we note in many places, each one of these over-snow vehicles provides different kinds of experience for the visitor, and that’s really the important point here,” stressed Mr. Sacklin. “We’re not trying to say one is good, the other is bad. Each has some pluses, each has some minuses.”

From her viewpoint, Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis says the growing mountain of research shows winter-use impacts, no matter the form of transportation, are lessening.

“Clearly, between 1995, ‘98, 2000, 2002, 2003, every year we gain more resource information through probably one of the most significant monitoring programs that exists in the Park Service to monitor the resource conditions,” said Superintendent Lewis. “And I think that ... when you examine the data, are we headed in the right direction, have we reduced in every one of those resource categories? I would tell you the data says ‘yes.’

“As we go forward in the next (EIS) analysis, what we are going to be looking at is it acceptable or unacceptable,” added the superintendent. “We’re basing these decisions -- at this point, they’re not decisions (they’re) construction of the alternatives -- based on long-term monitoring and continuing to move to achieve that highest and best resource condition that we can.”

Randy Roberson knows first-hand the comparisons that can and cannot be made between snowmobiles and snowcoaches. For years he has operated businesses in West Yellowstone, Montana, that rely on Yellowstone customers. He rents rooms and snowmobiles and offers snowcoach transportation in the park. (Full disclosure: His Yellowstone Vacations business is a Traveler sponsor)

On the question of fuel economy, Mr. Roberson said, “The Park Service asserts that snowcoach fuel economy averages 3-4 miles per gallon. If we use even the middle of this range -- 3.5 mpg -- and assume only eight visitors per coach when even the smaller of the modern snowcoaches have capacities of 14, and our average visitors-per-coach has been on the rise, then you see that the snowcoach over the same 60-mile roundtrip to Old Faithful uses 17.4 gallons, which is 2.18 gallons per passenger, which works out to 27 miles per gallon per visitor. That's in the case of the smaller coaches.

“With my larger coach,” he continued, “I always get 2-point-something miles per gallon. Always. I can take 30 passengers, but 18 is average. Now you really see the efficiency per visitor. Assuming just 2.0 mpg, the 60-mile-roundtrip to Old Faithful requires 30 gallons. With 18 passengers, that's 1.67 gallons per visitor, which works out to 36 miles per gallon per visitor.”

As for passenger comfort, things have changed over the years, said Mr. Roberson.

“The criticisms ... certainly applied, at one time, to old snowcoaches, although let me say that even many of them have been updated so that the criticisms aren't accurate even for them,” he said. “To give them due credit, those retrofits have combined history with modern technology. Here's the bigger point. For ten years, I've been building snowcoaches from the ground up, in every respect designing them for the winter environment of Yellowstone and the winter visitor's experience.

“That means they're heated, ventilated and have wonderfully large picture windows. My visitors have the advantages of large, comfortable seats, cozy temperatures, easy conversation and a tremendous vantage from which to enjoy the park's scenery,” said Mr. Roberson. “In all but the oldest of the park's snowcoaches ‘fogged’ windows are a thing of the past.

“I have no reason to say anything negative about snowmobiles. I continue to rent them,” he added. “But I can tell you that most visitors who really consider the benefits of one option versus the other are choosing snowcoaches and they are leaving the park very happy about what they saw, learned, and were able to talk about while someone else did the driving and they didn't have to deal with cold or wind or noise.”

Sadly, the world’s first national park, the one that arguably is better known and more revered than any other, the one found within the nation that launched the national parks movement, is mired in society’s technological hubris, one fueled by litigation. On one hand there’s the belief that technology can mitigate any and all impacts, and on the other is the promise of a lawsuit if you disagree. But how far should the National Park Service acquiesce in trying to please everyone? Should the agency, which is charged with preserving its properties "unimpaired" for future generations, allow "minuses," to borrow one of Mr. Sacklin's words, in the world's first national park?

Some would say there is a simple solution to the seemingly annual hand-wringing and judge-shopping over whether Yellowstone's winter travelers are to be born by snowmobiles or snowcoaches: Close the park’s interior from November to May. That’s right. Take a cue from Glacier, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic, and even Grand Teton national parks, all of which recognize that winter is a particularly harsh season, and put up “Road Closed to Motorized Vehicles” signs at Yellowstone’s west, east, and south entrances on November 1 and don’t take them down until May 1. Winterize the Old Faithful Snow Lodge just like the Old Faithful Inn and let the snows pile up deep on the steaming landscape. Let those who can snowshoe or ski into the park’s interior and enjoy its wintry wonders.

While that solution appears both outlandish and politically unrealistic, the Park Service had a recent chance to block snowmobiles from Yellowstone if it wanted to do so, as the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently noted in ruling on one of the recent filings in the matter.

In 1974, the appellate court noted, President Nixon issued an executive order “directing the Secretary of the Interior to establish policies for off-road vehicles on public lands ... the National Park Service adopted a default rule for all national parks: the ‘use of snowmobiles is prohibited, except on designated routes.' ... Under this default rule -- sometimes called the ‘closed unless opened’ rule -- the Park Service must promulgate a special regulation designating particular routes in a particular national park open to snowmobiles; absent such a rule, no snowmobiles are allowed.”

In short, when a Washington, D.C.-based federal judge in September 2008 threw out the park's winter-use plan because he found that it ran counter to both science and the Park Service's conservation mission, the Park Service could have banned snowmobiles by falling back to the default rule. Instead a federal judge in Wyoming took the stance that there were no regulations for winter-use in Yellowstone heading into the winter of 2008-09 and so ordered the park to fall back onto the 2007-08 regulations that allowed up to 720 snowmobiles if it could not come up with a temporary rule. The Park Service did not appeal that ruling by pointing to the default rule.

“... the default rule has always remained in place and it expressly forbids snowmobiles in national parks when there exists no other special regulation permitting them," the 10th Circuit noted. "The district court didn’t explain why the default rule failed to fill the regulatory void it perceived, let alone purport to adjudicate any challenge to the default regulation before effectively undoing its dictates.”

Short of banning all over-snow traffic outright, perhaps the best solution environmentally, but one also not likely to be accepted, is to simply open up the park by plowing the roads from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful and from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and bring visitors in by shuttle bus. Alas, that option also is not without its flaws -- how would vehicles and wildlife coexist on roads bordered by 8-foot snow banks?

Sadly, for all involved, there likely will be no amicable resolution in the near future. Michael Yochim, in his book on the matter, Yellowstone and the Snowmobile, Locking Horns over National Park Use, concluded as much.

“... the agency’s lack of confidence in its ability to articulate and promote its own vision for winter use will continue to hamstring its protective efforts,” Mr. Yochim wrote. “For these reasons, we can expect to be arguing about winter use for many years to come; horns will remain locked for the foreseeable future.”

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I always enjoy your posts (as time permits). We visited Yellowstone for the first time last year, so this one is particularly close to the heart. I love the pictures you paint with words.


Connie
In January of this year, we took our very first Winter trip to Yellowstone. I can only comment on our experience. The Park in Winter is a completely different experience compared to our normal Fall and Summer visits. We came in from West Yellowstone by Snowcoach and our experience was a good one. We passed Bison, Elk, Trumpeter Swans, Eagles and Coyotes and it was clearly obvious that they weren't phased in the least by our presence or by the Snowcoach. We later took a Photo Safari and once again had a vey pleasurable experience. My husband was able to photograph to his heart's content.

“I have no reason to say anything negative about snowmobiles. I continue to rent them,” he added. (Mr. Roberson) “But I can tell you that most visitors who really consider the benefits of one option versus the other are choosing snowcoaches and they are leaving the park very happy about what they saw, learned, and were able to talk about while someone else did the driving and they didn't have to deal with cold or wind or noise.”

For us however, the highlight was the all day, Snowmobile Lower Loop Tour. We had an excellant guide who emphasized safety first and foremost.

* In that briefing paper, park officials said the commercial guiding requirement provides “excellent service to visitors, outstanding safety, and accountability...” And yet, in February 2006, with the guiding requirement in place, a woman was killed when she crashed her snowmobile off the road between Norris and Canyon.

This woman's death, while unfortunate is only a single example of a worst case scenario. A risk exists everytime we go White-Water Rafting, Backpacking, Jeeping even driving home from the grocery store! People have died in Yellowstone without benefit of a Snowmobile for many years and sadly will probablycontinue to do so in the future!

I acknowledge that this a hot button topic for many people and I look forward to the dialog that this will generate!
Connie Hopkiins

The Snowmobiles we were on were much quieter than I had been led to believe from reading various articles about them prior to our trip. What impressed me most however was the lack of people (who I usually see clogging up the roads with idling vehicles in Bison jams and so on) and viewing the Park in a way that very few people ever experience! I do believe that Winter visitors to Yellowstone are a different breed that Summer visitors


Very well written article! Thank you for the frank opinions backed up by current information! However, I do wish to point out some things.

In regards to this statement:
John Sacklin, a management assistant in the park who has worked on the winter-use issue for at least the past decade, denies there’s a bias against snowcoaches.

I think you are misreading the intentions of the park service officials. It seems to me that they do not hold a bias against snowcoaches, but more, they wish to mitigate the bias against snowmobiles by pointing out the negatives of snowcoaches and the positives of snowmobiles. 80% of the public statements received over this issue are anti-snowmobile. However, a significant portion (though I do not know how many) of those comments refer back to unlimited two-stroke snowmobile use and not current limited use. Basically, people are unaware that snowmobiles have changed.

This statement caught me as well:
Those who favor snowcoach-only travel question the park's data, noting that the emissions study compared “best available technology” snowmobiles against a mix of old and new technology snowcoaches rather than only the best snowcoach technology, which, just as 4-stroke snowmobiles are cleaner than their older 2-stroke relatives, makes the newer coaches decidedly cleaner than the older ones; that there are more snowmobiles in the park than snowcoaches, and so more opportunities to startle wildlife; that soundscape studies certainly seem to indicate that noise goes down when snowmobile numbers go down.

First off, the study was done using current technology i.e. vehicles currently in use today. While BAT regulations have been considered for snowcoaches, they have not been implemented. Significantly more modern vehicles were used in this test versus old; surprisingly, the new vehicles did not always do better than the old technology! The simple fact remains that conversion vans were never designed to go over snow. There is a serious power draw and quite often these vehicles are run at full throttle, first or second gear. I know this because I drive them. This means the technology in the vehicles have a hard time keeping up with the stresses we put them under, and therefore often fail to remain clean. Furthermore, on sound and modern coaches, according to stats I got on this study from John Sacklin, 4 out of 11 modern type snowcoaches DID NOT meet BAT snowcoach standards of 75 dBa at 50 feet. Another 5 were close to not making it being around 70 dBa.

Secondly, the statement about numbers of snowmobiles is a mute point. One must remember that snowmobiles now travel solely as groups with the exception of administrative travel. Therefore, it is only accurate to consider each snowmobile group, not each individual snowmobile. Over the last few years, there has been an average of 36 groups of snowmobiles, with average 9.1 people per group. For snowcoaches, its an average 32 vehicles per day with average 8.7 people per vehicle. What similar numbers! To go a little more into it, snowmobile tours failed when it comes to amount of audible time on the road. As a snowmobile tour passed, they were audible an average of 2 min 20 seconds of time while coaches were audible 2 min 5 seconds. Then again, at the madison sound monitoring station, loud vehicles (over 70 dBA for 1 sec or 60 dBA for 10 secs) were recoreded 177 times in 08-09. Of those, 94% were snowcoaches.

So, basically, each travel type has its advantages and disadvantages, but neither is clearly the better mode of transport.

Oh, and yes, compare one snowmobile death that I know of in 6 years (ironically, the snowmo guide was a new one and did not know the park well) to automobile deaths during the summer. Even accounting for decreased visitation during winter, the track record for safety in winter is phenomenal. Consider too. The heavier a snowcoach, the less able it is to handle the roads. I have watched the snowpack break and crumble from under a mid size snowcoach and the vehicle get sucked off the road. The heavier the vehicle, the greater the chance of something like that occurring. Should that happen to a large high passenger vehicle going appx 30-35 mph and the vehicle tumble down a hill into trees, as happened to that poor snowmobiler, how many injuries or deaths will result? It hasn't happened yet, but that does not mean it cannot happen.


Snowmobiles are noisy, they scare away wildlife and they pollute the environment. Wake up! If snowmobiles were appropriate for use in national parks, the Park Service would not be in the process of phasing out their usage. Why do you think that 80% of park visitors want them banned ? Go to Six Flags if you want to ride around on a motorized vehicle.


Connie
I respectfully ask how the limited number of snowmobiles allowed inside of Yellowstone can compare, polluting the environment-wise, to the masses of idling automobiles in the summer in say, the Hayden Valley? As yearly Summer visitors we see (and inhale) first-hand, the effects of crowds of people in their vehicles, not to mention the idiots who chase the wildlife in order to get a photograph.

Again, only speaking from our own personal experience, the animals we encountered on our all day snowmobile ride on the Lower Loop, didn't even look twice at us.

While the debate surrounding over-snow vehicles in the park dates back decades, in just the past ten years the Park Service has spent a reported $11 million on resource-impact studies and monitoring. At least 850,000 people -- closer to 900,000 when you consider the latest temporary winter-use rule -- have commented on snowmobiles in the park, with about 80 percent of those folks supporting a phase-out of snowmobiles, according to park officials.

Does anyone have the link for this study that explains the "controls" that were associated with this particular study?
Connie Hopkins


Connie, this story addressed the winter/summer pollution comparisons:

/2009/08/studies-show-summer-traffic-yellowstone-national-park-not-polluting-snowmobiles-winter

As for "controls," not exactly sure what you're referring to, but all the studies can be found at this site:

http://www.nps.gov/yell/parkmgmt/winterusetechnicaldocuments.htm

When you get into wildlife impacts/disturbances, the debate can get really fine-tuned, as there are those who maintain that even if an animal doesn't run at the sound of a snowmobile, snowcoach, or cross-country skier, it can still be impacted through higher respiration and every other physiological response tied to anxiety. Then, too, is the argument that the NPS is charged with seeing that individual, as well as overall populations, are not impacted, and so if only one out of ten bison shows any sign of distress, that's one too many.

Have a great trip to the park! I'm envious. Spending Christmas there must be truly special.


Doesn't the NPS use snowmobiles themselves for basic transportation in Yellowstone. I remember reading an interview with Shelton Johnson, who said one of his jobs there was delivering the mail in winter via snowmobile. I don't know what other way they could do this. I don't suppose sled dogs would be practical.

When I was taking a ranger-guided walk at Yellowstone Canyon, one ranger mentioned that he'd ridden a snowmobile once. He didn't indicate that he particularly enjoyed the experience. He equated all the clothing, goggles, etc he had to don as similar to wearing armor.

And totally off-topic, but there's a McDonald's drive-thru window in Sweden only used for snowmobiles:

http://www.mopo.ca/2009/04/snowmobile-drive-thru-at-mcdonalds.html


I certainly have very mixed feelings about all this. As a former ranger I can identify strongly with the need to protect and preserve. But on the other hand, as an older person now who couldn't possibly ski all the way to Old Faithful or Norris from much of anywhere, I know the only way I could enjoy the park in winter is with mechanized help.

Last January I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the park and take a snowcoach trip from Mammoth to my old stomping grounds at Norris. It was a wonderful experience. One I could not have hoped to achieve any other way. Norris was an entirely different place than I had ever known it. Our young driver, Ceder, was great. His interpretive efforts along the way matched those of any NPS interpretive ranger. He took great care to safeguard the bison we met along the road -- following far behind as it ambled along before finally ranging off the road and into the trees.

We met a guided tour of snowmobiles and I think I changed my thinking about those things. Four stroke engines were surprisingly quiet. They were well behaved under the watchful eyes of their guides.

It was an unforgettable -- and precious -- experience. I want to go do it again someday with a trip to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in all its winter glory.

Despite all the pressures coming at the service and Yellowstone's administration from all sides, I'm confident that the service can finally come up with a careful and well balanced plan that will allow for the best possible equation between the Enabling Act's two opposing mandates -- to protect unimpaired the resources while still allowing for their enjoyment by present generations, whether we be young and fit or old and creaky. Winter use in Yellowstone has come a long, long way since the days of unrestrained and unregulated free-for-all insanity. We're on the right track. Let's not abandon common sense and good management.


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