Editor's note: Yellowstone National Park officials once again are working on an environmental impact statement regarding winter-use in the park. There have been several calls for plowing of the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful to provide better access to that icon. Just recently the Yellowstone Business Roundtable, a pro-business group, called for that section to be plowed, as well as the route from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful. But what might that plowing create? Proponents say it would make a winter visit to Yellowstone more affordable to more of the general public. But how might the resulting increase in traffic transform Yellowstone, which already in some eyes is over-run by summer visitors?
In Dances With Wolves, Lt. John Dunbar requests a posting on "the frontier" because he "wants to see the frontier before it's gone."
It's not too difficult to put Yellowstone National Park, between the months of December and April, as being on the last frontier of the Lower 48. During those snowy, at-times frigid, months Yellowstone is a harsh, cold, inhospitable place, yet one of incredible beauty in large part because of that ruggedness and elemental encounters.
Granted, it's not a trackless wilderness that Kevin Costner's character faced. But in light of our shrinking natural landscape, that vestige of wildness that falls within a national park's borders, or within a national forest's, often is the best we can offer these days in terms of wild frontier.
While it very might well be relatively easy to maintain wheeled-access to Old Faithful year-round, as plowing proponents maintain, with apparently few environmental consequences, should we shrink what little "frontier" we have left in the National Park System? And in doing so, would we turn Yellowstone more towards an amusement park, where day trippers arrive en mass and stand in line at Norris or Old Faithful for snowmobile tours to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or West Thumb, enjoy a box lunch, some snapshots, and then launch a mass exodus out of the park?
How different would the Yellowstone-in-winter experience be if shuttle buses coursed through the park between West Yellowstone, Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Cooke City, Montana, just beyond the Northeast Entrance, on an hourly schedule? Critics say the Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park has lost its character because of over-crowding. Would this, too, be the fate of Yellowstone in winter if key segments of its interior roads were plowed?
Plowing proponents say opening the roads in winter would make a visit to Old Faithful during that season more affordable, that the current price tag is elitist. One can only assume that bus tickets would be less expensive than snowmobile or snowcoach tickets, which can quickly surpass $200 roundtrip.
While some pivot the question of winter-use in Yellowstone on the question of "access" to the park, that's really not the issue at all. Yellowstone is never closed. The road from Gardiner, Montana, outside the North Entrance, is kept open all the way across the park's northern range to Cooke City, Montana, year-round. U.S. 191, which bends and weaves from Bozeman, Montana, through the park to West Yellowstone, Montana, also is open year-round to wheeled vehicles. Over-snow traffic can enter the park from the South, West, and East entrances. And, of course, skiers and snowshoers technically can enter just about anywhere anytime (though they should get their backcountry permits first).
Central to the winter-use debate -- indeed, you probably can pare most everything else away as superfluous side trappings -- is reaching the Upper Geyser Basin with its thermal waterworks. Were Old Faithful and its supporting cast of geysers, hot springs, and gurgling fumaroles not to exist, would the decade-long dispute over how to manage winter-use in Yellowstone be with us? After all, there are plenty of national forests where you can ski, snowshoe, and snowmobile, yet only Yellowstone has Old Faithful.
Venture into Yellowstone's interior during winter and surrounding the geyser basins is a harsh, remote, largely inaccessible winterscape. Having ridden a snowmobile or in a snowcoach through snowstorms or 20-below Fahrenheit temperatures to stay in a lodge where life slows down when the sun goes down, to spend days exploring the thermal areas, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or navigating the Grand Loop in one of those over-snow vehicles, to perhaps hearing the ice shelf on Yellowstone lake groaning and grinding under pressure, is an experience not likely to be forgotten.
While the journey surely is part of any trip, the destination of Yellowstone in winter far surpasses the task of getting there. Trees near geysers quickly are covered not just in hoar-frost from the bitter cold, but also in layers of rime that result when the water and steam from the eruptions coat trunks and branches. In the lodgepole forests there's the occasional cracking and popping as trees struggle with the cold. Heavy snows bend trees into submission, and result in curious bends and twists in trunks stuck for so long in those positions throughout the park's long winters that the contortions become permanent. Steam from geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs you might not notice when the air temperature is in the 70s stands out under the cold like so much smoke curling skyward from campfires.
Among the latest groups that wants park officials to think long and hard about keeping open the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, as well as the one from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful, is the Yellowstone Business Partnership, whose mission is to unite "businesses dedicated to preserving a healthy environment and shaping a prosperous and sustainable future for communities in the Yellowstone-Teton region."
In its scoping comments (attached below)to the park's latest environmental impact statement on winter-use, the organization maintained that an "'All-Season' operating scenario," one in which winter visitors would ride public transportation through much of the park, not private vehicles, "would provide the greatest number of social, economic, and environmental benefits for visitors while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat."
Under this proposal, there still would be over-snow travel allowed from the South Entrance to Old Faithful, with guided snowmobile trips available from Norris, Canyon, and Old Faithful. And it also raises the prospect of developing a backcountry hut system between West Thumb and Old Faithful for skiers (and presumably snowshoers), one that "would be enhanced if Craig Pass was closed to all oversnow vehicles." (No mention, though, how that might impact snowmobiles or snowcoaches entering through the park's South Entrance and heading for Old Faithful.)
This proposal prompts a number of questions, though. What impact would it have on the lodging operations and their associated components (utilities, employees, sewage, supplies, etc.) at Old Faithful in terms of those additional months of use? While the YBP proposal says the park's highest elevations "would be preserved for winter wildlife security and to maintain their backcountry character," how might it impact the lower elevations where the park's elk, bison, and deer tend to congregate in winter, with their predators -- wolves -- in tow?
As far as "backcountry character," what about front-country character? Watching Old Faithful erupt in 10-degree weather with a handful of other park visitors is one type of front-country experience, as is walking the Upper Geyser Basin's boardwalk in relative solitude. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of others while the iconic geyser erupts against the background sound of growling snowmobiles catering to those day-trippers is another. And if Old Faithful and Norris are made more accessible in winter, would the park's crews be forced to be more attentive to icing on the geyser basins' boardwalks, conditions that currently are managed by nature?
At Winter Wildlands Alliance, which advocates "for human-powered snow sport enthusiasts and winter wildland conservationists" as well as to "ensure a safe, quiet, tranquil experience for every winter wildlands adventurer, now and always," Executive Director Mark Menlove isn't ready to endorse the YBP proposal.
"While the thought of a shuttle system with skier drop-offs sounds attractive, we believe the issue needs thorough scientific review. My sense is once the impacts are better analyzed that a plowing option will probably not be the panacea some are presenting it to be," said Mr. Menlove. "I can tell you we’d be very much opposed to plowing roads in order to simply move snowmobile and snowcoach staging areas inside the park instead of outside. Turning Old Faithful into a giant parking lot/staging area for snowmobiles and snowcoaches would certainly detract from the winter experience there and would not be in keeping with the park’s conservation mandate."
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees also worries about the increased visitor-load this proposal would have on Yellowstone during its most trying season.
"I understand the motivation in the business community to increase winter travel in Yellowstone -- it's good for the businesses in the gateway communities. I believe, however, that the park desperately needs the "down time" that the winter provides," said Rick Smith, chair of the group's Executive Council. "I always thought of it as a time for healing in the park, a time for its wildlife and vegetation to get a break from pressures of the summer season.
"I also think that plowing additional roads in the winter to facilitate this increased visitation also presents some challenges. I am worried about visitor safety on iced roads, the temptation to apply sand on these roads, the economic impacts on the park to buy additional equipment and pay for additional staff time to plow these roads. All this in addition to increased noise and pollution in what should be the quietest time in the park."
Plowing Yellowstone's roads has been an issue for decades, as Mike Yochim pointed out in his comprehensive book, Yellowstone and the Snowmobile: Locking Horns Over National Park Use. That the debate is ongoing directly impacts how we view nature.
Yellowstone long has been viewed as the crown jewel in the National Park System, and it's been said that if questionable uses and practices are allowed there, they can, and will, trickle down through the park system. With that in mind, if the Park Service agrees to clear the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful in winter in the name economics and access, should we also keep the Tioga Road through Yosemite National Park open year-round, as well as the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, the Teton Park Road in Grand Teton National Park, and the Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park?
Should we be concerned about the cascading impacts such a decision might unleash on this natural frontier, one that continually is shrinking. As Gerald E. Mernin, a Yellowstone ranger in 1984, said, "We are once again at a critical crossroads and are teetering on the brink -- we have the opportunity to help preserve uniqueness or to proliferate a watered down, carbon copy mediocrity we can find elsewhere."