For more than a decade the debate over how winter in Yellowstone National Park should be enjoyed has dragged on.
The National Park Service has gone back and forth with the political winds, calling back in 2000 for recreational snowmobile use to be phased out completely only to see the Bush administration drop that decision in favor of continued snowmobile use.
Legal battles waged by those who want continued snowmobile use and those who believe Yellowstone would be healthier without snowmobiles have prolonged the debate and led to a fistful of environmental studies -- environmental assessments as well as more complex and detailed environmental impact statements.
The latest comment period on the park's proposal for winter-use comes to an end next month. Encompassing nearly 550 pages, this Draft Environmental Impact Statement on winter-use is a massive, complex document, one that challenges the lay person as well as the studied expert to be conversant on all its nuances.
Along with technically exploring how best to move about the snowbound park, examining the impacts of snowmobiles and snowcoaches as well as looking at whether plowing of roads for wheeled traffic would be feasible, the study raises questions about the role of national parks, how best to conserve and preserve their resources, and how society views the parks.
Here are some numbers to keep in mind when studying this issue.
Estimated amount the National Park Service has spent on winter-use studies in Yellowstone since 2000.
100 to 300...
Between 100 and 300 artillery rounds are kept on hand at Sylvan Pass for use in doing avalanche control to allow for safe passage by snowmobiles and snowcoaches coming into the park from the East Entrance.
According to a panel of experts convened in 2007 to discuss avalanche control work in Yellowstone, there is no other place in the National Park System "where NPS rangers are doing this kind of avalanche hazard mitigation or where this type of work is performed for a transportation corridor that is primarily used by over-snow vehicles."
Annual amount budgeted for avalanche control on Sylvan Pass.
Less Than 3 Visitors Per Day
Number of visitors entering the East Entrance via snowmobile and crossing Sylvan Pass last winter. There were no snowcoaches traversing the pass last winter, as no one bid on the contract.
8 to 10
Park planners acknowledge that keeping Sylvan Pass safely open could impact wolverines, a slow-reproducing species that in December 2010 was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a "candidate" species for Endangered Species Act protection.
Jeff Copeland, arguably the foremost wolverine expert in the United States, estimates that there are only 8-10 wolverines in Yellowstone.
Within the Environmental Consequences chapter of the park's DEIS, the planners note that "(B)ecause wolverine females give birth in mid-February and there is at least one known den in Sylvan Pass, there is a risk of disturbance of denning females and kits. Disturbance by OSVs and Sylvan Pass maintenance activities may result in lower quality parental care by female wolverines both prior to weaning at 10 weeks, and before young wolverines set off on their own, generally at around one year old."
At the same time, the planners concluded that "(P)opulation-level impacts on lynx (a threatened species) and wolverines under alternative 7 (the park's preferred alternative) are predicted to be long-term minor adverse."
From his vantage point, Mr. Copeland believes the odds are long that a wolverine would be killed directly by an artillery shell, but he does acknowledge that human disturbance could impact the species.
"I think the likelihood of one of their bombs killing a wolverine would probably be fairly remote. It would have to be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that kind of thing for the wolverine," he said. "The issue may be more about disturbance or displacement.”
As recently as 2009 a wolverine den was found on Sylvan Pass, according to the park's DEIS.
330 and 80
Under the park's currently preferred alternative in the winter-use DEIS, up to 330 snowmobiles and 80 snowcoaches would be allowed daily into the park for 45 days of the 90-day winter season.
254 and 63
"Average" daily number of snowmobiles and snowcoaches the preferred alternative would allow in the park, according to park officials.
The number of daily snowmobile numbers, above which, resource conditions in Yellowstone would be adversely affected, based on the Park Service's own science, according to eight former National Park Service directors. They added that placing a daily cap below 250 would be better for the health of the park based on the park's science.
The latest National Park Service study illuminates in detail that allowing Yellowstone’s current average of 250 snowmobiles per day to increase—to as many as 720 snowmobiles—would undercut the park’s resurgent natural conditions. Specifically, the study reveals that snowmobile noise would return to areas of the park where visitors are currently able to enjoy natural sounds and quiet. It demonstrates that exhaust would increase in Yellowstone’s air. It sidesteps a recent recommendation made by Park Service scientists: that in order to minimize disturbance of the park’s wildlife, traffic should be kept at or below current levels, not expanded. -- March 2007 letter the former directors sent to then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
Average daily number of snowmobiles in 2008-09, the last winter NPS monitored the effects of oversnow vehicle traffic both on Yellowstone’s soundscapes and wildlife. Based on its monitoring, NPS concluded that: “The overall impact on the natural soundscape from oversnow vehicles was lower than the past five seasons, likely due to the decrease in daily average number of oversnow vehicles that entered the park; an average decrease of about 95 oversnow vehicles/day from last season.”
Regarding wildlife, NPS reported: “wildlife responses to motorized winter use were slightly lower for most species than in previous winters.”
Total number of snowmobiles (23,122) and snowcoaches (5,730) that could be allowed in Yellowstone during the 90-day winter season under the park's currently preferred alternative.
That total would surpass the levels of snowmobiles and snowcoaches seen entering the park during the winters of 2003-04 (24,481 vehicles), 2004-05 (20,565) and 2005-06 (24,379), the years monitored by Dr. P.J. White, a Yellowstone wildlife biologist, and his colleagues to measure wildlife impacts. In that study, the biologists recommended that over-snow vehicle levels be kept "at or below those observed during our study."
When questioned on the currently preferred proposal to allow nearly 29,000 over-snow vehicles entering the park each winter when Yellowstone's own biologists have recommended lower levels, park spokesman Al Nash responded that, looking at "average" traffic levels from the past two winters "the preferred alternative would allow both fewer snowmobiles and for fewer snowcoaches than we have allowed since limited, regulated use began."
The use of "averages" when discussing snowmobile numbers has not been supported by the courts.
In September 2008 when U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan struck down the park's most-recent winter-use plan he devoted more than five pages to wildlife impacts, and referred to Dr. White's studies and recommendations. He specifically took exception to the park's position that "there is no reason to expect that average use will increase over the current average of 260-290 entries per day."
"The Court is troubled by this argument, which persists throughout NPS’s briefs," wrote the judge. "There is no evidence in the record to support the assertion that future use levels will remain as low as those seen in the past three winter seasons."
These numbers reflect the sound levels of “best available technology” snowmobiles authorized for use in the park. The general trend since 2005 has not been in the direction of further reductions in the noise produced by snowmobiles entering Yellowstone, which NPS stated in the Federal Register that it expected based on assurances from the snowmobile manufacturers.
Instead, through the past six years the snowmobiles put forward by the industry for use in the park have generally become two to three decibels louder, with top noise levels above Yellowstone’s standard of 73 decibels.
In some cases, while there were initial reductions achieved in noise under the BAT requirements, numbers have begun to reverse. Some 2009 Bombardier models were measured at 70.1-72 decibels before inching backupwards to a range of 71.3 - 75.1 for 2011 models.
In its most recent soundscapes monitoring report, NPS attributes improved listening conditions for visitors at Old Faithful, not to technology, but to reduced traffic, stating: “The lower percent time audible value of the past two winters is likely due to a decrease in the daily average of about 100 snowmobiles/day.”
Here’s what NPS expected, that hasn’t come to pass:
“NPS expects that snowmobile manufacturers will conduct ongoing research to continually improve sound and emissions in a line of available production machines.”
(Yellowstone Winter Use Supplemental EIS)
“The NPS fully expects, and the industry has stated that, technological improvements will continue and that snowmobiles entering the parks will be even cleaner and quieter than the machines evaluated for the SEIS.”
(Yellowstone Winter Use Record of Decision)
“…there have been no improvements in air or sound emissions since 4-strokes were introduced in 2001.”
(Text of NPS PowerPoint presentation in public process leading to development of the 2007 Winter Use Plan)
In the 2011 Arctic Cat and Bombardier models authorized for use in Yellowstone, certified sound levels are two to three decibels higher than those produced by Yellowstone BAT models six years ago. Both manufacturers’ machines produce sound levels in excess of Yellowstone’s standard of 73 decibels—reaching levels as high as 75.1 decibels.
(Snowmobile BAT list on Yellowstone Website)
There are seven alternatives in the DEIS. In addition to the park's preferred option, one calls for not allowing any motorized use, another calls for phasing out snowmobiles in favor of snowcoaches, and one proposes allowing up to 720 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day.
The park also considered an alternative that would allow commercial, wheeled vehicles to travel on roads that would be plowed from West Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful.
The proposals also call for continued use of "best available technology" (BAT) snowmobiles, and a new limit on nitrogen oxide emissions would be implemented. By the winter of 2014-2015, snowcoaches would be required to meet or exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 2010 emission standards for new wheeled vehicles. Under this proposal, snowcoaches also would be required to meet a new ground-surface weight limit of 4.5 pounds per square inch to limit potential damage to park roads.
Traveler clarification: The Traveler reported on May 5 that the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 said a daily cap of 250 snowmobiles would be in the best interests of the park's health.
What the EPA said in its June 2007 comment letter to the park was that improvements had been made to "air quality, soundscapes, and wildlife disturbance" with traffic reduced by two-thirds of 'historic' use. Park Service documents have identified the 'historic use' number as 795 snowmobiles per day. One-third of that number would be 265 snowmobiles per day.
"Today, vehicle numbers are reduced by two-thirds compared to historic use, resulting in improved air quality and soundscapes as well as reduced wildlife disturbance," the EPA's letter said. "The combination of significantly reduced vehicle numbers and the use of BAT has decreased the predicted maximum carbon monoxide and particulate matter levels by about eighty-five percent.