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

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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Personally, I think loud machines are as out of place in a Yellowstone winter as they would be at Arlington National Cemetery, for the same reason: it's a violation of sacred space.

Doesn't a military funeral ceremony typically involve firing rifles at the gravesite?

Ironically enough, the Captcha phrase I've got now is "carbine 134".

I've never been to Yellowstone in winter, and don't suppose I'll ever be able to make it. But it pleases me to dream of that wondrous place blanketed in snowy silence. Maybe a compromise could be worked out where snowmobiles, and maybe coaches too, are simply forbidden on two days a week. If you want to buzz around, don't schedule a visit for then. If you want to experience silence, schedule for those days.

Personally, I think loud machines are as out of place in a Yellowstone winter as they would be at Arlington National Cemetery, for the same reason: it's a violation of sacred space.

As always on NPT, d-2 is exactly right. I wish, however, that he had stressed a little more the idea that the NPS should provide for public use and enjoyment so that it leaves park areas unimpaired for future generations. That is the baseline against which we should measure all public use.

Rick Smith

I never considered the Act of 1916, what you refer to as the 'Organic Act,' to contain opposing ideas.

It always seemed the point of the Act was to preserve the area, and to enjoy the preserved area, AS a preserved area.

In our litigious times, we try to cut corners on everything, to sneak in exceptions or qualifications when we can. But the law clearly directed the NP Service to identify the manner and means for the park to be protected, and enjoyed, BOTH. These are not objectives in conflict, this is just management and judgement.

I agree of course with your point that some are colorblind, and we never know if the color we see is exactly the same as the color seen by another. But that misses the point about whose opinion matters. Your point, as I understood it, seemed to be saying that the opinions of some are less valuable than those of others.

I believe in an educated electorate, as you obviously do. But I also believe there are different kinds of experience, and many things that are worth knowing. But even more important than superior knowledge is the critical importance of the civic Responsibility of the electorate, and the only way we get that is if we say we are all (except should we except the special interests?) fully responsible for our civic life. The Nation decided to set Yellowstone aside, and the decisions about protecting it rests with the whole people, with particular responsibility of the agents of the people in Congress or in the NPS. Yes, the superior knowledge of the NPS on the right way to manage a park is very important, but more important is the responsibility of the NPS: they are accountable to the people for implementing the laws. NPS needs public support for that part of its job, or bit by bit we will lose what, originally, made the park so valuable in the first place, that Americans decided to preserve it.

Yes, I think there is a danger that some NPS official can go overboard. Several people have posted to this website to say that, in effect, the NPS is "anti-people." Some rigid or unimaginative people exist everywhere, but for the most part it is my experience that most people in the NPS like people, want people to enjoy 'their' park, and sometimes bend over backwards to permit uses when a more conservative approach would be wiser. Even worse is the way Republican congressional staffers drove the NPS to adopt a system to limit all advance planning and studies for a new park development to only 17% of the cost of the project.

So, if you have a $100,000 sewer-line project through a potential archeological zone, you have only $17,000 to design the project and to study the potential of the destruction of valuable archeological resources. That is ridiculous; NPS should not develop a new use unless it understands the impact of that use FIRST. Nor should NPS have approved the vast amount of snowmachine use in Yellowstone BEFORE it fully evaluated it, nor should the NPS have permitted it to continue while studies finally were started (after danger signs were observed, not before). In Alaska, a pretty convincing rumor alleged that the reason Senator Stevens cut the funding for researchers in Gates of the Arctic was because he didn't want the NPS to get the data it needed to identify the level of poaching going on.

New technologies that change use, change the time of the year when use happens, or change the volume or frequency of use should not get the benefit of the doubt.

These new technologies should first be conservatively evaluated to determine if any impairment of the park character or resources may happen if the use is permitted. Not that you are saying this, Rod Schobert, but it is a race to the bottom if we point to ONE example of excessive use to justify the expanded use of ANOTHER kind.

I personally love and find it exhilarating to race snowmachines in the snow, but that is not enough of a reason to let me do it in a place set aside for its natural values before the invention of the internal combustion engine. It is a big country. There are lots of other places to run machines.

I remember when you could hear the opinion in many parts of Alaska, especially among White people, that people Outside Alaska should bug out, stop trying to set up parks, refuges and wilderness areas, and leave such decisions (on federal, public land !) to these Alaskans. The phrase: "let the bastards freeze in the dark" was on a lot of bumper stickers. The fact that most of these White Alaskan residents had only moved up to Alaska as adults, or pretty recently, and seemed to want to aggregate all decisions to themselves, this fact did not seem to be a opportunity for self-reflection.

My ideal, which I have seen only rarely, is when with different experience realize all kinds of experience has something to contribute to the conversation to develop good policy. And Raven, speaking of extremists (you don't sound like an extremist) the very large problem in America right now is we are being polarized into such extremes, that one side not only does not listen to the other side, but is completely suspicious of the other side. We don't even have a common vocabulary of facts as a basis of evaluation. I would like a little more trust, and wider latitude for decision by park officials of appropriate levels of use, and less of the kind of political showdowns by local politicos and by Washington. There is no doubt that a selection factor, maybe a litmus test, in the choices for superintendent of Yellowstone was cooperating with the Washington politicos working to expand snowmachine use, and that is wrong.

By militant, I mean the extremes. Yes, militant means something different today than it used to. Perhaps extreme is a better word, the "extreme environmentalist." After all, d-2, I consider myself an environmentalist. But every time I recycle a bottle, I can tell you the plus and negative side of what I am doing, and if pressed, back it up.

Remember the Organic Act. Two opposing ideas. Preserve and protect for the benefit and enjoyment of the people both current and future. Every new technology needs be felt out and considered, not dismissed outright. If we did that, we would be doing our parks a disservice.

As for labels, is not saying the leaves are green labeling the leaves? Would not someone who is colorblind be able to argue that point? He doesn't see them as green. We are human, by nature of our brains and our language, we label things, and yes, sometimes dismiss them because of that label.

I have been in YNP many times over the past 35 years. Most of these visits have been in the summer, with an occasional winter visit. I have used cross country skiis, snowshoes, and a couple snowcats, but never a snowmobile. My experience with the snowmobiles has been via observation only. The snowmobiles have been far less disruptive than the RVs, pick ups, and cars that flood the park in the summer. During summer animal sitings, a few do really stupid things that endanger themselves and invade the wild animal's natural space. All this to obtain a photo! Once when our children were young we observed, from our car, a group SURROUND a bison. The poor animal took off and proceeded to ram 3 vehicles, then walk away!

In the winter all snowmobilers are required to be with a professional guide who prohibits harassment of animals or dangerous walks close to thermal features. The winter is much more peaceful and serene, even with the snowmobiles which are allowed in limited number.

I must add that I would be against the use of snowmobiles in YNP without guides. Some riders would abuse the privilege, endangering themselves and the wildlife, as well as the park itself. Unbridled use would be unfortunate.

On the other hand, it is really disturbing when people try to limit carefully managed use of the park when it belongs to us all. The current winter management system works well, in my experience. A trip to YNP in the winter is magical and builds lifelong memories!

Raven, it DOES get dangerous when you start to objectify "this" or "that" group of people: "locals" may dismiss "national" interest, and vice versa.

And anyway, what is a "militant" environmentalist? It that a put-down? (for me, the environmental movement seems pretty weak these days, and you've got me to thinking if some of the great environmental US Senators of the past -- people like Senator Muskie, Senator John Chafee, Senator Mac Mathias, perfect gentlemen all -- would be dismissed as "militant" today !)

It is easy to play this game: dismiss everybody who signs a petition or a form letter (or votes?) as uninformed? Do you really believe everybody who advocates for the environment are empty?

Dismiss everybody who supports government inforcement of the laws as 'Hitlerian' as some talk radio types seem to want to do?

Do you really believe all who advocate for the environment really don't know what they are saying? Put it another way, how about if we give a test to those who want every new kind of technology in parks, including snowmachines and modern concealed weapons, and first make them show they actually understand the laws governing national parks before we take their opinions seriously? Wouldn't it be better to either protect the park with high environmental standards, or just put it to a congressional vote to shut down the park all together ? Is it really so militant to want to preserve the peace and quiet of a park for all time, as the law intended, rather than slowly chipping away at the things that make it different from Anyplace, USA?

Political progressives at the turn of the last Century -- and these were the people who set up the National Park Service and other agencies and reforms with the idea of removing them as far as possible from politics and commercialism -- believed that the opinions of people or corporations who could benefit commercially from the parks, automatically had a special interest, and were compromised opinions.

Throughout the 20th Century, the assumption was the people with the commercial special interest were the ones who needed to be watched, and whose opinions are not to be trusted. Such as snowmobile guides or even snowcoach operators !

Is this a safer course than dismissing the opinions of people with no personal interest, who just want to see the parks preserved without new forms of access and inconsistent technology?

Anyway, as Ray Bane says, you start getting on dangerous ground when you dismiss the validity any segment of the American people. But that is what we do these days. We have become a nation of name-callers, and we are able to dismiss the opinions of those we see as part of some other Tribe.

But it's safe to say that the bulk were from throughout the country, and probably most were from an electronic form provided by those who want to see snowcoaches the preferred form of travel.

Though I was not given a percentage, yes, a significant portion of that 80% were forms as per John Sacklin.

Hard part, in my honest opinion, has to do with just the very simple word "snowmobile." When one says snowmobile, or jetski or atv for that matter to a random person on the street anywhere in the country, there is likely to be a negative reaction. Hence, militant environmental groups across the country only need walk up to random people anywhere and say, "Ban snowmobiles in YNP! Save the park! Go to this website and click a few buttons to support your dying park!" And people will do it. Now, if I was pro snowmobile, and I walked up to someone and said, "Support snowmobiling in YNP! Let people into our park! Go to this website and click a few buttons to support snowmobiles!" Well, I might get a reaction that translates to, "Are you crazy?!?" Snowmobiles just simply, and historically deservedly, have a glut of negative publicity.

I will even admit. I am a snowmobile guide. I also drive snowcoaches. My sister fancies herself an environmentalist. Nearly a year ago, she forwarded me a form that was titled, "40 things we want Obama to do in his first 40 days of office" Up toward the top of the list was "Ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone" This from my own sister! I doubt she truly bothered to read or look up any information on all 40 items listed.

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