Reader Participation Day: Which Issue Resonates More: Yellowstone Snowmobiles or Cape Hatteras ORVs?

Two of the most contentious issues in the National Park System are the debate over snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park and the one over off-road vehicle management at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

In Yellowstone, the dispute over recreational snowmobiles is moving into its second decade at a cost of more than $10 million to the National Park Service. Sometime next year we should see the latest draft winter-use plan and how it proposes to let visitors enter the park: snowmobiles, snowcoaches, or a mix of the two?

While snowmobile technology certainly has evolved since 2000 -- when this issue became a Ping-Pong ball between conservationists worried about impacts to Yellowstone's air, water, sound, and employee and visitor health and snowmobile enthusiasts who prefer to enjoy winter in the park atop their sleds -- how much those impacts can be resolved or mitigated remains questionable.

Past efforts at solving this conundrum have resulted in lawsuits that succeeded in sending the Yellowstone staff back to the drawing board time and again.

At Cape Hatteras, the debate over when and where those who rely on off-road vehicles to reach preferred spots on the seashore is only a handful of years old. But it is particularly heated with abuse at times heaped on Park Service staff as well as on Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, which successfully sued to have the Park Service produce an ORV management plan.

Depending on which side you listen to, the proposed ORV rules would be devastating to local businesses and force surf casters and their families to walk miles toting their gear to reach their preferred fishing spots, or they would go a long way towards restoring healthy populations of endangered and threatened sea turtles and shorebirds.

While, understandably, these issues can have the greatest impact on the economies and livelihoods of those living closest to Yellowstone and Cape Hatteras, these are units of the National Park System, and as such should be important to all who enjoy the national parks, no matter where they live.

So, with that background, which of these two issues is of greater interest to you?


Having skied into Yellowstone twice in midwinter, I had hoped to find a quiet place for camping and exploration. But instead I found stinking blue fumes, constant noise and stress on many trails. I have never returned to Yellowstone in the winter. And after reading comments about Hatteras, I won't be going there either. This country simply does not give a damn about the integrity of its national parks.

Snowmobiles: I have a home in Wyoming. Yellowstone is a huge park, the only way to see and photograph the park is on a snowmobile. Yes, there are tours in a snow coach, but they are on their timetable and only stop in a location for a few minutes. I have seen the blue haze and heard the noise that everyone complained about with the older machines. With the new ones, they are much quieter and the haze is gone. The animals have adapted and are use to the the machines operating on the road. In other words, they are not stressed. I have seen them stressed by a hiker/skiier getting too close where they are not use to it. I am in favor of continued snowmobile operations utilizing best available technology and reasonable limits on numbers.

Question, Angela, when did you visit the park in the winter?

Having spent much time living near & visiting Yellowstone, I must, to the chagrin of many, side with the "keep snowmobiles out" group. Skiing through the solitude of the Park, enjoying the beauty - in peace & quiet. Machine age has nothing to do with the noise - there are performance products that make the 2010 models just as noisy as older ones, and ALL break the solitude that is Yellowstone in the winter.
But I also do not want to deny those non-athletic types the beauty of the Park in the Winter, so I believe the best solution, for the enjoyment of all, is a limited number of vehicles allowed. The issue then, of course, becomes the correct number........
Hatteras also is beautiful - and so sorry if you have to hike with all your stuff to fish where you want. The parks were intended as a PRESERVATION of the natural landscape, and if misuse or overuse destroys that, then rules must be devised to preserve the Park for future generations. We are only borrowing the lands during our own lifespans - more people are to come & they too should have the opportunity to enjoy the natural wonders we are attempting to preserve.

these parks should not be treated as highways. The parks are there for people and wildlife. For some wildlife, they are the only place they have to rest, feed and care for their young. We need to ensure wildlife continue to have such areas in our over developed, over populated country.

I have spent some quality time in Assateague Island NS, where ORVs are permitted to drive down the 37-mile beach for fishing and other seashore pursuits. This is a well-used park with very crowded beaches, but I was virtually unaware of any disruption from the ORVs (and I was working on a travel guide, so we were looking for disruptions). None of them seemed to be joyriders, and strict speed limits are enforced when the road ends and the sand begins. The fishermen we met well down the beach were as interested in peace and quiet as we were. Piping plover and turtle nesting areas were well-marked, and ORV routes steered clear of these. I don't know if Cape Hatteras is significantly more congested with these vehicles, but I did not find them nearly as disturbing as I expected.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone feels to me to be a much more serious issue, especially because so many large animals make their homes there. I have not been there in winter, but we were just there in June, and even the general traffic noise was extremely obtrusive. I can't imagine the misery of small gas engines, fumes, and machines cutting through peaceful fields moving every which way. If Yellowstone can't be sacred, what in heck is?

A continuation of my above comments: The park requires 4-stroke machines which are much quieter and cleaner than the old machines. You are also required to hire a guide service. The guides make their living in the winter in Yellowstone and the last thing they want to do is to lose their guide license. They keep people on the roads and off the trails. I'm not sure when Angela was there, but snow machines have been required to be only on the roads for the past 20 years. I understand the skiier point of view; but it is a big park and all you need to do is ski a mile or two and you are a well into the back country. The problem with restricting the park to skiing only is that it is simply too big a park. To visit Yellowstone Falls would be a 100+ mile round trip with overnight winter camping. I am not able to do that. As for the noise, if that is the chief concern, then perhaps we should ban Harley Davidson's during the summer. They are far louder! By the way, the Ranger's patrol the park in winter on snowmobiles. Finally, do not confuse a National Park with a Wilderness Area. The National Park exists for both the animals and humans. Restrict it so far that humans can not visit, and the love for our parks will decline.

By the way, I have no commercial interest in this. I am not a snowmobiler. I have rented them (and a guide) on occasion to allow me and my family to visit the park in the winter.

I've been to West Yellowstone, but not actually in the park (I was traveling on horseback, riding one horse & packing the other, in the late fall of 1980 or 1981). Have never been to Cape Hatteras. That said, it occurs to me that many well-meaning people wax apoplectic over over-the-snow vehicles and/or all-terrain (off-road) vehicles, never considering the impact Mother Nature has on the landscape of both places, and everywhere else.

Cape Hatteras is regularly battered by hurricanes, nor'easterers (rain or snow, depending on the season), high tides, etc.

Yellowstone has record cold temperatures, snow measured in feet, fire, wind, and other natural weather happenings.

While some get their bowels in an uproar over the puny tracks made by OSVs and/or ATVs, seldom is mention made of the power of weather.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness suffered a massive blowdown -- tens of thousands of trees -- in the mid-1990s, worse than the blowdown caused by the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

Once upon a time, before there was a National Park Service and National Parks, there was private property. Case in point: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border and spine of the Appalachians. Promises made to the people of Cades Cove, Tennessee, and other sparsely-populated areas of this region, were made by state governors and other officials, but they were not promises made honestly. The intent was to remove these people from their homes, farms and private property. One woman was forcibly removed from her property by men carrying her in her rocking chair. Integrity is a word often bandied about in the same sentence with government, but the two are usually poles apart. They are not synonymous.

Before condemning people whose choice of recreational mode involves a motor, please consider that Mother Nature has some weather engines that make recreational vehicle access pale in comparison!" My choice: Neither "resonates more" -- or less. Both places should welcome, among others, motorized forms of recreation.

It amazes me that some don't truly know what is going on in Yellowstone. It is obvious that Angela hasn't been in Yellowstone since the new rules have been put in place in 2004 as there are no 2 strokes in the park other than the park service themselves or researchers snowmobiles. All others are 4 stroke just like an automobile engine so no blue haze.

If William Hardy lives near Yellowstone he should no that performance pipes aren't added to the snowmobiles taken in Yellowstone as all are provided by the rental places and have guides leading them through the park so no outfitter would want to lose their permit for sending in illegal snowmobiles. Also please tell me how many athletic types will ski from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and back the same day? I don't think many will do the 60 mile round trip so it isn't just the non-athletic types wanting to see the beauty of Yellowstone. Athletic types as well as family of all ages will use a snowmobile or snow coach to visit the park.

Randi Minetor should be relieved to know that the snowmobiles are only allowed to travel on the roads that the automobiles travel on in the summer. No trails or open meadows are allowed to be ridden on by snowmobile. Yellowstone is a sacred place and is treated that way. In fact if you want quiet and solitude in the park then it is far better to visit in the winter than the summer. Everyone go enjoy Yellowstone and thank you T.J. for some rational comments.

I've never been able to understand why anyone would need to drive on the beach at Hatteras when a blacktop road parallels the beach. Is it the walking or carrying that is objectionable? I just shake my head at the thought that either is a consideration. Lazy, lazy. My grandmother used to tell me that "nothing good comes easy". After a few years of prohibited vehicles on the beach fisherfolk will appreciate the solitude as they dip their lines in the surf. Trust me -

10 M of tax dollars spent on the snowmobile issue? Come on lets be reasonable. Do we really NEED to drive a snowmachine EVERYWHERE? The answer to this issue is such a no brainer that it's ludicrous. There are acres and acres of land surrounding Yellowstone that can be accessed by a snow machine, why do we need to allow them "in" Yellowstone? "The animals have adapted to snow machines" - really ??? what animals ?? Maybe you have convinced yourself but I don't buy it. Not even "Grizzly Man" knew the brown bear like he thought he did. I can't imagine that you speak with much authority.

So my response to your question is that both issues are as equally important to me. They both address issues that are at the core of the Service's Organic Act. We, as a Nation, made a decision over 100 years ago to preserve these small parcels of significant landscape in perpetuity lets hold to that promise.

YNP4Everyone, while it's certainly true that snowmobiles are restricted to the roads in Yellowstone, it's not true that everyone obeys that regulation. Things have been improved from the pre-guide years, but from time to time there have been incidents of off-road travel.

Julie, your comparison of the impacts of nature and those of motorized vehicles, while interesting, I don't think works. A very tangible part of a national park experience is the power of nature, whether it's measured in snowfall, raging rivers, and yes, even wildfires that are naturally sparked.

Human-caused impacts are decidedly not part of nature or a natural infliction.

That said, our collective responsibility is to decide which human-caused impacts are acceptable on public lands, be they managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or some other federal agency. The ongoing battles over snowmobiles in Yellowstone and ORVs at Cape Hatteras are just two examples -- very glaring examples I would submit -- that we're having a hard time deciding whether the impacts are reasonable.


This is a tantalizing statement:

"Human-caused impacts are decidedly not part of nature or a natural infliction."

This may be the root of all our relationship problems with nature. Are we above nature? Are we separate from nature? Or are we a part of nature? This is a fundamental, albeit difficult to answer, question. If we are separate from nature we have the "right" to do as we please, nature is there for our taking. If we are a part of nature, then what we do to the environment, good, bad or otherwise, is part of the cycle...we are neither hurting nor helping the environment.

I would be curious to hear what others think about this.


I will say I am impressed by your website taking on this issue again.

I do need to correct you in the fact that the issues of Cape Hatteras have been going on for decades also and not the handful of years you stated. It is only now that the posterchild became a little fuzzy bird. The first attempts to close the park to ORVs was very early on, but there was no other form of transportation and no roads at the time. Then there was the failed attempt to use the ghost crab as a poster child along with sand compaction, and so on...

Human caused impacts are only used when they benfit the park system. This is proven by the park system instituting their own measures of Human caused impacts by killing animals to protect others.

It is amazing when someone decides to slam others for what they do and they have never even smelled the same air as the people they claim to be more knowledgable than. Unless you understand to whole picture please stay in your comfort zone.

Speaking of

Ed your correct in only one thing about Cape Hatteras and that is the blacktop does sometimes parallel the beach. Why is it you chose to slam ORV users as lazy and not the millions who drive through the NPS sites every year. Is allowing any modernization in the NPS System Human Caused Impacts. If so please remove all electricity, roads and any and all items and buildings from the NPS Sytem as they were crweated by man and provide a level of comfort that my Grandmother (who grew up with no AC, No Electricity, no GPS no Emegency beacons, no TV , weather reports, no internet.) would constitue as being spoiled.

I have been to several NPS parks and to be honest I found very few areas that were not touched by humans.

I do access the beach with my vehicle. I do pick up trash off the beach. I do only use my vehicle to access the beach because I have two small children and we prefer less crowded accomidations than say Virginia Beach. Ed the beaches there are wider than you think and with small children you do not just walk out a few miles and set up and then walk back. When I leave the beach each day I leave only tire tracks, which mother nature takes care of shortly there after. I have seen trash blowing through campgrounds at every NPS park I have been to and no one cleaning up after themselves or others as they do in Cape Hatteras.


Indeed, debate over how the seashore should be managed and utilized has been going on almost from its inception. My intended reference, which I could have made more clear, was to the legal fray stemming from the lawsuit brought in 2007 by Audubon and Defenders.

I also would question whether "Human-caused impacts are only used when they benefit the park system." There are a number of examples where any benefit is questionable...but that's a story for another day;-)

The worst part is if you had a solution that 99% of us agreed on, the 1% would still produce a lawsuit that will still cause us to spend 10 million to defend. Maybe that was your point, Kurt.
As for my opinion I am for Snowmobiles with limited numbers etc.. that T.J. and William Hardy best described. I do enjoy reading everybody's view including those who differ from mine.

Haven't seen Yellowstone in the winter, but hope to soon. To me, winter is about the silence. Hopefully, we can work to preserve that soundscape.

Living close to Hateras and having driven on the beaches, I would like to see an option that let's all people enjoy all the beaches, not just the priviledge few that have 4 wheel drive vehicles and the desire to take them on the beach.

Why can't a concessioner be found to run a shuttle out to the popular areas (like Cape Point), put more parking behind the dunes in the other areas and close the beaches to all vehicles. That way, more people can enjoy more of the park. 10 percent of the visitors shouldn't control 90 percent of the beaches because of their vehicles.

I notice people say they come to Hateras because they can drive on Hateras beaches, but not their beaches closer to home. Why should Hateras be different? It's surely deserving as much respect as other beaches, if not more. If the economic impact to the towns along the banks is too great, let them open their beaches to vehicles.

Robert, I agree about seeing YellowStone in the Winter. I grew up in Michigan and what a delight to see Mackinac in the winter.

As far as Cape Hatteras you are wrong about who controls 90% of the beaches (See Consent Decree and the quatities they propose for plover recovery on the island 30 Pairs with one chick per) I have never had an issue with finding a beach to attend with no 4X4. Look into the villages or the dozens of approved crossovers where no vehicles are allowed.

As far as the shuttle system. Can you see a line of people with fishing gear waiting with families to access the point? Parking lots would have to be created eating up more precious land for the birdies.

I agree that the suit was another chapter, but only that is when the Anti ORV crowd got the upper hand.

Hate to say it, I use the closed off beaches all the time, walking over from my car. Rarely do we not find tire tracks through them.

Winter can be silent, but I prefer hearing the sound of woodpeckers working in dead trees, the sounds of ice popping and cracking, or snow plopping as it is warmed just enough by the sun to lose its perch, etc. Winter is usually not all that quiet! Animals here in our farmland area, make all kinds of noise, from the chittering of squirrels and chipmunks to the other animals calling to one another. The sound of animal or human travel is usually audible, particularly when there's a crust on the snow! The howl of winter winds can drown out any voice, screaming like a banshee!

Kurt, while you are entitled to your opinion -- "Human-caused impacts are decidedly not part of nature or a natural infliction" -- I'm puzzled at why you feel that humans are not part of nature. Why single out one species and exclude it?

The views of others in this forum are of interest to me; I applaud Dave Crowl's mention of this!

My family and I visited Yellowstone last winter and did the snowmobile trip with a guide from West Yellowstone . What a wonderful adventure it was. I have bad high blood pressure and there is no way I or most visitors could hike all the way to most of the park-- especially in the winter. The guides were very cognigent of the impact on the park. The snow-mobiles were quiet and meet all the guidelines. The animals did'nt seem to care at all about us but rather were wanting to use the roads we were on because it was easier for them to wlk because the snow was hard. We never were allowed to go off the main road and travelled in a group.i don't think snow-mobiles negativley impact the park at all ,the way its regulated now . It allows 100 times more people to enjoy the park during the winter. the area the snow-mobiles go on is less then 1/10 of 1 % of the park. I've been to nine of our Nat. parks and our trip to Yellowstone on the snow-mobiles was one of the greatest!!


A philosophical bent, eh?

Let's keep things in their proper context. I was merely assessing your comparison of the impacts of nature -- hurricanes, cold, snowfall and blowdowns -- with those of motorized vehicles. I never said humans were not part of nature. They are very much.

But snowmobiles, ATVs, chainsaws, cars, trucks, tents, sleeping bags, etc, etc, etc, are not naturally occurring, are they? Rather, does it not take the manipulation of nature through the mining and refining of ores, distillation of petroleum, etc, etc, etc, to create them? (I'll let Ryan debate whether that manipulation is natural since it's by humankind's hands)

Some see beauty and magnificence in the raw, unbridled power of nature, even if it's displayed in a wildfire or a hurricane, simply because it's a wholly natural display. There's no ugliness in it. Awe-inspiring, perhaps, but not ugly.

Others, though, see no beauty in deeply rutted terrain left by machinery or vehicles, or in oil or antifreeze spills, or in pieces of bumper or undercarriage left behind.

That's not to say I'm against riding in a car or snowcoach or snowmobile. It's merely to rebut your assertion that Mom Nature is as devastating to a national park landscape as is Honda or Polaris.

When our children were young we were uncomfortable with the vehicles driving on the beach at Cape Hattaras especially near the that time we did not have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. We have since discovered the joy of getting off by ourselves and spending the day on a beach where we seldom see other people. There are still many sections where cars are not allowed and the wall to wall people that use them can have them. With the miles of shoreline available at Cape Hatteras it would be a shame to close the beaches and leave them to the birds. We respect the seasonal closures and have often talked about getting more involved with "turtle patrol" with the hopes of someday seeing a hatching turtle nest.

Julie Kay Smithson

I have been a regular visitor to CHNS for 50 years. Cape Hatteras is an extremely small Park when compared to Yellowstone. At one time the ocean beaches was the highway for the extremely small communities of local residents as there was no paved roads on Hatteras or Ocracoke islands. In the 1950s the state built a paved road and no one used the beach for access on or off the island anymore. The beaches were wide and void of vehicles. It was a wild and beautiful place then.

The National Park service dropped the ball by not restricting ORV access then. The handwriting was on the wall and the Park Service looked the other way. Today it is quite common to see cars parked 20 feet apart with the rest of the beach a morass of ORV tracks in the sand. For the most part the ORV users are orderly and respectful, there are just too many of them in too small a place. NPS law enforcement officers are few and far between and can’t adequately patrol or enforce the ORV laws there are.

Many times CHNS doesn’t even remotely look like a National Park. It would be better for the National park Service to deed the Nation’s first National Seashore to the state of North Carolina than to continue to miss-manage the Park the way they do now.

The local National Park mangers seem relieved to let the environmental organizations take responsibility for forcing them to adhere to Park Policy. 50 years ago should be the standard for management of CHNS.

Bill H

Kurt thanks for acknowledging that the snowmobiles are restricted to the roads as you can see Randi and Ed don't seem to understand it in their comments. As you know there are also occurances of automobiles running off road in Yellowstone over the years yet there has not been a big push to eliminate them from the park. Snowmobiles may get too far off to the side of the road or may pull into an area that is closed in winter but open in summer and those are sometimes called off road for snwomobiles but called normal traffic in the summer so unfortunately the term off road varies between summer and winter when the snowmobiles may not truly be off road but in an area that is not groomed and maintained in the winter but still part of the road system.

YNP4Everyone, I'm referring to the backcountry poaching by some snowmobilers that occurs -- much more infrequently than it used to -- along the western border of the park near West Yellowstone. And there were times when there was "high marking" on hillsides along the Grand Loop Road.

Still, things are indeed much improved and for the most part those are issues largely of the past.

I think if one hunts hard enough they can find some evidence -- and not necessarily overwhelming -- to buttress their respective position, whether it concerns snowmobiles in Yellowstone, ORVs in Cape Hatteras, personal watercraft at Gulf Islands, hunting in the parks, overflights, or any of the other myriad issues that must be settled across the National Park System.

The problem seems to be finding a suitable middle ground, and we need to find a way to reach that point without spending millions of dollars, as has been the case in Yellowstone, on environmental studies and legal fees that could be better spent by the Park Service.

For the sake of comparison, at Assateague Island National Seashore, the beach miles are divided almost half and half between those open to vehicles and those closed to vehicles. The number of vehicles on the beach is strictly limited to 145 at any time in the Maryland part, 48 in the Virginia part. At Cape Hatteras there are no limits on the number of vehicles entering the beach.

Regarding snowmobile use in Yellowstone - since only Best Available Technology (BAT) snow machines are allowed to enter the park, that means they are fitted with clean and quiet 4-stroke engines from cars and motorbikes that enter the park pretty much unrestricted in the summer. So my point is, if the sleds are so bad for the park, then why not ban the cars and bikes as well? It is only logical. That is the point, If the logic to ban sleds is sound and valid, then it also applies to the motor vehicles in the summer. Why not? Same engines, same noise, same emissions. The dirty, smoky, smelly two-stroke sleds have long since been banned. Yellowstone is a PARK, not a WILDERNESS. The management practices of the two are DIFFERENT. As long as cars and motorbikes and motorhomes are allowed to enter the park in the summer, then sleds should be welcome in the winter.