You are here

NPCA Officials Cite Snowmobile Emissions In Criticizing Winter-Use Plan For Yellowstone National Park


Pointing to the National Park Service's own testing as evidence, National Parks Conservation Association officials are criticizing a proposed winter-use plan for Yellowstone National Park, saying testing shows snowmobiles have gotten dirtier and noiser, not cleaner and quieter.

In pointing to the park's Yellowstone Over-snow Vehicle Emission Tests – 2012: Preliminary Report, NPCA officials say the trend to dirtier and noiser snowmobiles the past six years "contradicts the snowmobile industry’s repeated promises to make cleaner snowmobiles and keep unhealthy gasses such as carbon monoxide, benzene and formaldehyde from fouling the air of the country’s oldest national park."

The report explains that scientists tested 2011-model snowmobiles in Yellowstone and compared their emissions with 2006 models made by the same companies, NPCA noted in a release.

"One manufacturer’s newer snowmobile emitted over 20 times more carbon monoxide than its earlier model. Another company’s newer model had higher emissions of every exhaust gas sampled, including 5 times more hydrocarbons," the release said.

The report concludes: “The model change in snowmobiles has not been a positive influence on air quality based on the emission data.”

In releasing the park's Draft Supplement Winter-Use Environmental Impact Statement earlier this month, Superintendent Dan Wenk said his proposal to allow up to 480 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone, more than twice the average entries of recent winters, would make the park “cleaner and quieter.”

However, the National Park Service’s own studies contradict that assertion, the NPCA release said. "That document shows the proposed plan would increase snowmobile noise and pollution in Yellowstone National Park with significantly greater emissions of carbon monoxide and cancer-causing gasses such as formaldehyde and benzene," the park advocacy group said.

“Rewarding a technology that is going backward and getting dirtier is the very opposite of stewardship that Americans expect and deserve in Yellowstone National Park,” said Tom Kiernan, NPCA president. “After 10 years of pledging to make major improvements to emissions and noise, the snowmobile industry has gone back on its promise to the National Park Service and the public."

The emissions study looked at “recent additions to the snowcoach fleet” and concluded: “emissions are generally lower for newer snowcoaches compared to mean values of the earlier fleet and especially compared to the older carbureted engine snowcoaches.”

Indeed, specific data provided in the report show that current snowcoaches are up to 50 times cleaner than current models of “Best Available Technology” snowmobiles when the vehicles’ carbon monoxide emissions are calculated on a per-visitor basis. In per-visitor emissions of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, the report shows snowcoaches are 2-5 times cleaner than snowmobiles. The report reflects that these air-quality advantages of snowcoaches are expected to become even more significant when Yellowstone requires all snowcoaches to utilize newer engines.

“The National Park Service should make an immediate U-turn on this misguided policy. After all, the growing majority of Yellowstone Park’s visitors prefer multi-passenger snow coaches, which are demonstrably cleaner than snowmobiles, which are getting dirtier. Even park officials have acknowledged that,” said Chuck Clusen, director of the National Park Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The only obvious and responsible path forward is to facilitate the use of snow coaches, not snowmobiles.”


I don't get it that reducing pollution is a 'bad' thing.

The comment about "no matter the cost or benefit" is just editorializing, not objective.

Well put, Anon. I believe your understanding/viewpoint is held by many more than those that hold on to their intractable "philosophy of lowering pollution for lowering's sake-no matter the cost or benefit, or Someone(s) intollerant."

Have to liken the decision makers in some respects to our DC servents that have become so separated from the real life out here by legislating things that never effect them. Maybe tie their salaries to the country's health, both in economic and environmental terms. I can dream:).

but rather seek to limit all pollution, winter or summer.

Of course there should be limits, but those limits should have limits. Back to my "epitome" comment. Each increment "limit" to so called pollutants comes at an ever greater cost. Getting rid of the first 50% may cost x. Get rid of the next 25% 10x. By the time we are getting down to the last 1%, the costs become astronomical. The environmental movement wants that last 1% gone not matter the cost and no matter the lack of any real benefit. This philosophy has put crippling cost on many of our industries and is one major reasons jobs are going offshore. (percentages and x factors are for demonstration purposes to represent orders of magnitude, not actual numbers)

You ask why banned in Yellowstone but not others? I asked why banned in others. The answer? NPS's own failure. Snowmobiling used to be allowed in 42 National Park Units. But, due to the park services own administrative failures, it has since been banned in all but two. One must wonder whether those "administrative failure" weren't intentional.

I will ask once again. If the current level of CO is already well below the standard, what is the purpose of lowering snowmobile use? Only two real answers; 1) The philosophy of lowering pollution for lowering's sake - no matter the cost or benefit or 2) Someone(s) is intolerant.

Anon, re using the best technology out there, Randy Roberson, who runs Yellowstone Vacations out of West Yellowstone, has already moved in that direction, buying and running cleaner and quieter snowcoaches before the park established BAT guidelines for snowcoaches:


And from the Billings Gazette on July 15:

Randy Roberson, whose West Yellowstone business provides both snowcoach and snowmobile tours said he likes the plan’s incentives for running cleaner, quieter machines. Roberson has already invested in higher levels of technology for snowcoaches, although Yellowstone doesn’t yet have best available technology standards for snowcoaches.

imtnbke, you paint with too broad a brush and are slapping paint all over the boards. You live in California. What do you think of the air emissions standards for automobiles? Do you have to have your vehicle checked regularly to ensure it's not surpassing those standards? What about water quality standards for municipal water sources? Are those requirements some nasty plot by "environmentalists" or do they somehow improve quality of both the living environment and of life?

Frankly, I think you might have hit on something when you used the word "stereotype" in your comment. Folks are tossing around the word "environmentalist" as they do "liberal," which carries one definition of "favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties." Yet in roughly half the country it's a pejorative.

Casting about such labels doesn't accomplish any good, but rather muddies the discussion with distractions and obfuscations. Your story about poor Seth is silent to what else he might be doing to protect the environment. Does he recycle 100 percent? Does he buy carbon offsets? Does he ride public transportation 350 days of the year? Your implied definition of "environmentalist" could just be too extreme.

That aside, the philosophical debate I was suggesting goes to several questions, such as:

* Why do Glacier, Mount Rainier, and Yosemite, just to name a few other parks, ban snowmobiles, yet it's OK in Yellowstone?

* Why are snowmobiles and snowcoaches OK in Yellowstone, but not personal watercraft or kayaks/canoes on the Firehole or Yellowstone rivers? Why do some parks/seashores allow personal watercraft, but not others?

* Why do some parks focus on the side of protecting resources over recreation, which the Park Service's mission requires, but not others? And this particular question returns to one I asked above but which so far has remained unanswered: Where do you draw the line in the world's first national park between "this is what we can do with current technology, but we're satisfied if we just go this far...."?

Of course one answer to these questions is political pressure. Yet all these issues go to one over-arcing issue, which is the quality we as a society want the parks maintained to both for today and for 100 years from now. Frankly, I have to wonder if all the millions of dollars spent the past decade on trying to come up with a satisfactory winter-use plan couldn't have been better spent developing cleaner, quieter, over-snow vehicles.

Zeb, you're absolutely right that the park shouldn't focus all of its efforts on snowmobiles, but rather seek to limit all pollution, winter or summer.

Kurt asks:

"Of course, another question is should every activity be allowed and provided for in Yellowstone? That's a deeper philosophical debate."

Many people who ask this question really mean: "My activity should be allowed in [X location], along with those I can tolerate, and no others."

There are a few people out there who advocate no human visitation of these places at all. That is the most principled stand: if they're really that sensitive and valuable, everyone stay out.

Of course, that's politically untenable, and it would also be bizarre. But we have enough bizarre concepts already of how to treat wildlands in America that it's not entirely unthinkable that this could happen someday.

We already see this with Forest Service Wilderness areas. Some of them are losing their trails from underuse, and no one's interested in maintaining them. Either they can't afford it (the agency), they're not allowed to both maintain them and use them (e.g., mountain bikers), or they prefer that people not go there at all.

So people crowd into shopping malls for mindless purchases of junk that they end up cramming in storage lockers, and/or retreat into isolation before their computer screens in anonymous suburbs.

I have to agree with the comment of Anonymous of 3:21 p.m.: "This is the epitome of what is wrong with the 'environmental movement.' Minimize no matter the cost and no matter the actual benefit."

I'm not saying that is true of the posters on this thread. This is a good discussion and I'm learning things from the snowmobile opponents. But I think it is true of "environmentalism" generally.

One problem is that there isn't any form of required licensing before one can call oneself an environmentalist. A barber or hairdresser requires a license in many places. But not an environmentalist." And yet one hears the media uncritically, and regularly, invoke "environmentalists' concerns" (concerns being the current fashionable euphemism for complaints or fears) as though a cadre of well-trained experts were speaking out.

I think environmentalist should be a term like accountant, real estate agent, or physical therapist—i.e., something you can't call yourself without a formal course of study and a qualifying exam afterward. The course of study should include economics, engineering, and either biology, chemistry, or physics. Not a PhD necessarily, but the equivalent of a BA.

Until then, when I hear the term environmentalist, I have this stereotyped vision of a 24-year-old guy I'll call Seth. Seth lives in an apartment in a urban, but not too gritty, Seattle neighborhood. He is earnest, serious, and politically correct. He may have studied political science at a green-oriented university. Seth can be found soliciting donations for environmental lobbies on the more fashionable streets of Issaquah or at the Whole Foods in Redmond. Occasionally he heads for an outing in the Cascades or the Olympics. The irony of doing these things by car escapes him. He has strong emotions about the environment—in fact he is convinced that we are doomed—but little education that could help him work usefully for environmental protection. He likes the label of environmental activist and thinks it gives him a certain standing, which it undoubtedly does in some circles.

At this point, I'm no longer quite sure I understand what the argument is. I think that I gathered this much:

- a few 100 snowmobiles pollute way less than 1000's of summer visitors

- park would like to limit the pollution of snowmobiles

It seems that limiting the snowmobile pollution is a worthy goal, but should it be applied as well to all visitors' cars that come in the summer? Any car made prior to 1990 is barred from the park!! Let's see how the public reacts. Otherwise, it kind of smacks of discrimination. I'm guessing that it's easier to pick on a few 100 snowmobilers than on the public at large.

A reasonable and respectful presentation that addresses some of the attitudes expressed or alluded to in the comments relating to the article. Seemed logical to me.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments