Yellowstone National Park Heads Down the Winter-Use Plan Road...Again

It's that time again. Pick your form of winter transportation in Yellowstone National Park. NPT photos.

If, after reading the above headline the movie Groundhog Day popped into your mind, you're forgiven. This topic has been poked and prodded more times and ways than the approach to health-care reform. And yet, Yellowstone National Park planners are back to take another swing at it.

This past Friday the National Park Service formally posted notice in the Federal Register that Yellowstone has officially opened the "scoping period," a 60-day window of opportunity (running through March 30) for you and everyone else to suggest issues the winter-use planners should take into consideration when they begin crafting yet another (No. 4, if you're counting) environmental impact statement addressing how winter visitors to Yellowstone should best be transported.

You'd think by now they wouldn't need to go through scoping (except, of course, the National Environmental Policy Act requires that they do). 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.

But that's procedural history, and litigation has erased it and brought the park back to ground zero. As the Park Service's new director, Jon Jarvis is hoping for the best this time around.

“We begin this process with a clear goal: a winter use plan for Yellowstone National Park consistent with the NPS mission, best available sound science, accurate fidelity to the law, and the long-term public interest," Director Jarvis said Friday in a release. "While the public scoping is just a first step, it is an important one, and the NPS looks forward to receiving comments and learning from them."

The EIS will consider a variety of alternatives for managing winter use in the park, including: the use of snowmobiles, snowcoaches, and wheeled vehicles; and guiding requirements. The EIS will evaluate the environmental effects of winter use on air quality and visibility, wildlife, natural soundscapes, employee and visitor health and safety, visitor experience, and socioeconomics.

Over at the National Park Conservation Association's Yellowstone field office, Patricia Dowd is ever-hopeful the process will once again point to snowcoaches as the environmentally preferred mode of winter transportation in Yellowstone -- as it has in all the previous studies.

“It is another opportunity for us to advocate for the best management practices in Yellowstone National Park, and for the Park Service to develop a final management plan that provides the best protection for Yellowstone’s wildlife, air quality, and visitor access," she told the Traveler on Friday afternoon. “Over the years the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, their science and everything they’ve looked at has revealed that snowcoaches are what is best for the park. We hope that the environmentally preferred alternative that is developed will be focused on snowcoaches and that the Park Service’s decision will be based on their new approach to decision-making."

Ms. Dowd, in discussing the issue, pointed to Director Jarvis' words: "He said they want to make management decisions using the best available, sound science. They want to uphold the fidelity to legal and policy mandates, and they want to include the long-term public interests in their decision-making process," she noted. The wording is almost identical to what former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and former NPS Director Mary Bomar said in the past about decision-making in the parks, and yet the winter-use issue remains unresolved and as bitterly contested as ever.

As I noted in December, Yellowstone managers point to research that they believe shows that technological advances have led to cleaner-running 4-stroke snowmobiles and narrowed, if not eliminated, the past disparities between snowmobiles and snowcoaches, and that noise differences between the two are minimal. However, 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.

If there's one change the park adopts in approaching the forthcoming EIS, let it be that analysts compare BAT snowmobiles to BAT snowcoaches head-to-head and don't rely overly on modeling or extrapolating to reach a comparison. And, perhaps a greater look at visitor experience should be measured. Can more interpretation be delivered to a coach-full of passengers than to riders on a string of snowmobiles? Is the sheer experience of riding a snowmobile in the park one of the experiences the Park Service wants to promote, or does it favor an experience more interwoven with the cultural and natural history orientation that is provided throughout a snowcoach trip?

"The long-term mission of the National Park Service is to provide a good visitor experience while minimizing impacts to the park resources," said Ms. Dowd. "Snowcoaches make the most sense.”

The fine print: A draft EIS and proposed rule are expected to be released in the spring of 2011 for public review. The NPS intends to complete the EIS process and issue any new regulations prior to the start of the 2011-2012 winter season. Currently, the park is operating under an interim winter use plan. The interim plan is intended to be in effect for two winter seasons (through the winter of 2010-2011), while the NPS prepares this long-term winter plan. The temporary winter use plan allows for a maximum of 318 snowmobiles in Yellowstone each day. All visitor snowmobiles in Yellowstone must be led by commercial guides. All commercially guided snowmobiles are required to be "Best Available Technology," which are the cleanest and quietest commercially available snowmobiles. Up to 78 snowcoaches are also permitted each day, and they must be commercially guided.

Public scoping comments will be accepted until midnight Eastern Time, March 30, 2010. Comments should be substantive, pertinent, and provide new information not available in earlier winter use planning processes. Respondents are being encouraged to submit their comments online at: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/yell. To submit comments in this manner, select "Yellowstone National Park" from the drop down box and then follow the link for the winter use plan.

Comments may also be mailed to: Winter Use Scoping, Yellowstone National Park, P. O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 82190. Finally, comments may be hand-delivered to Yellowstone National Park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming. Comments will not be accepted by fax, e-mail, or in any other way than those specified above.

Before including your address, phone number, e-mail address, or other personal identifying information in your comment, you should be aware that your entire comment – including your personal identifying information – may be made publicly available at any time. While you can ask us in your comment to withhold your personal identifying information from public review, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so.

The following is the schedule of public scoping open houses:

February 16, 2010, Idaho Falls, Idaho, from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm at the Hilton Garden Inn, 700 Lindsay Blvd.

February 18, 2010, Billings, Montana, from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm at the Hilton Garden Inn, 2465 Grand Road.

March 15, 2010, Cheyenne, Wyoming, from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm at the Little America Inn and Resort, 200 West Lincolnway.

March 17, 2010, Washington, D.C., from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm in The Old Post Office, 12th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

A scoping brochure is available at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/yell. Additional information about winter use planning and visiting the parks in the winter, can be found at http://www.nps.gov/yell/winteruse.htm.