Updated: Yellowstone National Park Winter-Use Plan Favors "Transportation Events" For Snowmobiles, Snowcoaches

Editor's note: This updates with additional details from Friday morning's press conference, reaction from outside groups.

A preferred winter-use plan for Yellowstone National Park revolves around "transportation events" to control the daily numbers of snowcoaches and snowmobiles negotiating the park's roads. As such, at peak times there could be as many as 480 snowmobiles per day on Yellowstone's snow-covered roads, more than twice as many as have been counted in recent years.

However, the plan that now is subject to 60 days of public comment adds that the "maximum daily average number of snowmobiles per day would be 342 by the start of the 2017-18 winter season." That's a number still much higher than current usage levels, but one park officials believe will have minimal impacts on Yellowstone's air, water, wildlife, visitors, and employees.

Reaction to the preferred alternative was cautious Friday, as conservation groups applauded the direction Yellowstone officials were moving to in terms of protecting the park's airshed, soundscapes, wildlife, and visitors. However, they said the preferred alternative still needs some fine-tuning, particularly in terms of how many snowmobiles are permitted in a "transportation event," snowmobile emissions, and the intent to continue maintaining winter access across Sylvan Pass, with howitzers if necessary.

Similar concerns were raised by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

“We support these essential elements of Yellowstone’s proposed plan,” said Maureen Finnerty, former superintendent of Everglades National Park and currently the chair of the Coalition's Executive Board.

“However, a portion of the plan contradicts the National Park Service’s emphasis that for snowmobiles to remain in Yellowstone, they must protect the park’s resources and values as effectively as snowcoaches," she added. "Overall, we believe this plan can serve Yellowstone well, but we urge a change where it does not stay true to its own goal and instead elevates the use of snowmobiles over Yellowstone’s conservation.”

How over-snow traffic in Yellowstone should be managed has been an issue that Park Service officials have grappled with for decades; concerted efforts to manage snowmobiles date to 1974 when the park adopted a master plan for winter use. The process became more complicated in the past dozen or so years, as lawsuits and threats of lawsuits sent Yellowstone planners back to the drawing board time and again.

The park has been operating under a temporary plan for the past three winter seasons. That plan expires next month, and without a new plan to replace it there would be no over-snow recreational access to Yellowstone beginning next winter.

The latest plan, which Yellowstone officials can be finalized in time to be implemented for next winter, would extend for one more winter the maximum daily allowance of 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches before implementing the approach to "transportation events" with the 2014-15 winter season.

That plan "is the most protective alternative that’s ever been proposed by Yellowstone or the National Park Service in the managed-use era," Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said. "It’s an impact-centric alternative. It makes the park quieter, and cleaner, than currently authorized. It develops new and very robust standards for both snowmobiles and snowcoaches."

Highlights of the plan's preferred alternative call for:

* Up to 110 "transportation events" per day; these events are defined as a group of seven snowmobiles or one snowcoach. However, the seven-snowmobiles-per-event would be the seasonal average; there could be times when as many as 10 snowmobiles are packaged in one group. Up to 50 of these events could involve groups of snowmobiles;

* Four non-commercially guided groups of five snowmobiles would be allowed each day of the winter season, one each through the park's Mammoth Hot Springs, West Yellowstone, South, and East entrances;

* Sylvan Pass would remain open for snowmobile and snowcoach access through Yellowstone's East Entrance, with park crews performing avalanche control as needed to ensure safe passage;

* Snowcoaches placed in service for the 2014-15 season, when the plan is scheduled to take effect, would have to feature "best available technology" (BAT) standards for their engine noise and emissions. By the winter of 2017-18, all snowmobiles and snowcoaches would have to meet the latest BAT standards.

Emissions studies outlined in the plan's supporting documents showed that BAT snowcoaches produced greater amounts of carbon monoxide per vehicle, while snowmobiles offering the latest in BAT -- sound levels at 67 decibels at cruising speeds vs. 73, and carbon monoxide emissions of 90 grams per kilowatt hour vs. 120 grams -- generated more hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides both per vehicle and per person.

But trying to put those results in context was difficult for park planners, who noted that, "Without making a value judgment as to which pollutants warrant more concern relative to others, it is not possible to ascertain that one mode of transportation is cleaner or more desirable than the other or more protective of the park's air quality."

During Friday morning's press teleconference, Management Assistant Wade Vagias said there were several ways to interpret the air-quality data collected in the park. Under the park's preferred alternative that allows both snowmobiles and snowcoaches, 1.44 pounds of pollutants -- carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides combined -- would be generated per person, he said. The option to move all winter recreation traffic to snowcoaches would generate 1.92 pounds per person, pointed out Mr. Vagias.

Modeling also shows that existing carbon monoxide levels would remain at levels "well acceptable" to the Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, he added.

"While I will grant that looking at a representative round trip it would appear that snowcoaches are cleaner, particularly for NOX and hydrocarbons, less so for carbon monoxide, that's simply one filter for understanding the overall emissions picture," said Mr. Vagias.

Superintendent Wenk added that the comparison of emissions from snowmobiles and snowcoaches on a seasonal basis shows the two modes of transportation "are very comparable, and I would say that the comparison is very accurate on a season-wide basis, much more so than on a one-hour or eight-hour basis."

Concerning representatives of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Winter Wildlands Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the Park Service retirees, were tables in the documents that show that groups of seven snowmobiles traveling together would generate eight times more hydrocarbons and 13 times more nitrogen oxides than a single snowcoach.

“Yellowstone has built its proposed plan around an assurance that ‘transportation events’ of different types will have ‘comparable impacts.’ But the park proposes to allow snowmobile groups to exceed its own measure of ‘comparability,’ generating disproportionate noise and exhaust and less ideal conditions for visitors seeking to experience and enjoy Yellowstone," said Deny Galvin, a former deputy director of the Park Service and current member of the Park Service retirees group.

"This is contrary to what law and policy requires in our national parks. It invites further uncertainty into the controversy over snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park that has already stretched 15 years," he said. "We hope the National Park Service will correct this portion of its plan so that it comports with the plan’s many good components.”

Additional information contained in the documents showed there are quite a few existing snowcoaches at use in Yellowstone that are quieter than the sound limits the park is proposing -- no more than 75 decibels per snowcoach or group of seven snowmobiles at 50 feet. Ten of those sampled produced less noise; nine of those were at 73 decibels or less at cruising speeds.

Superintendent Wenk said it was decided to go with the 75-decibel limit in part because of the snowcoaches currently on the market.

"We established that based not only on the new machines that were coming into the process, but looking at the existing fleet and the retrofitting that would have to be done, and we determined that 75 was reasonable for across the fleet," the superintendent said. "We looked at what was reasonable to accomplish with snowmobiles, and we believe that the 67 dBA at cruising speed (reguired for all snowmobiles beginning with the 2017-18 winter season) was something that could be accomplished for snowmobiles, and 75 for snowcoaches."

Incentives aimed at encouraging tour operators to move more quickly to the latest snowmobile and snowcoach BAT standards could boost daily numbers slightly.

Short of those incentives, "At the highest potential level of use, with all 50 snowmobile events used in a single day and all snowmobiles meeting 'New BAT' requirements, there could be a maximum of 480 snowmobiles in the park," the executive summary to the final Winter Use Plan/Supplemental Environmental Impact read. "Although this is the maximum number of snowmobiles that could be permitted into the park on a single day, this level of use would not occur every day because commercially guided transportation events would be required to average no more than seven snowmobiles per event averaged seasonally, and non-commercially guided transportation events could not exceed a maximum group size of five.

"No later than December 2017, the maximum daily average number of snowmobiles would be 342 snowmobiles per day," the summary said.

Those numbers are considerably higher than actual numbers from the past three winters. While the park limit for over-snow vehicles has stood at 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day since the winter of 2009-10, the daily average up through the 2011-12 winter has ranged from 187 to 197 snowmobiles, while daily snowcoach numbers have ranged from 56 to 63, according to the park documents.

Superintendent Wenk said the decision to go with 110 "transportation events" was made based on "the number of transportation events that were currently authorized, and I thought that was a reasonable number ... 123 (under the park's definition of a transportation event) ... and I believe that I wanted to see if we could make the park quieter and cleaner."

The superintendent also is confident that by controlling over-snow traffic through "transportation events" there will be "less harassment of wildlife and less impacts and more natural quiet in the environment."

"I think it's going to allow the quality of the resource to remain excellent, and also visitor experience to be excellent," he told the Traveler on Thursday before the plan was released.

The superintendent also said during that interview that the park didn't support the alternative that would have phased out snowmobile traffic in favor of snowcoach-only access because park studies demonstrated "that there was (no) real difference between a group of snowmobiles and a snowcoach. They’re very comparable in terms of air quality, in terms of sound, in terms of wildlife harassment, and so the question was why would we?”

As for keeping Sylvan Pass open, Superintendent Wenk said his staff was of the opinion that it can continue to be operated safely.

Asked whether the cost of controlling avalanches along the pass, at $125,000 per winter, or roughly $1,200 per visitor via that route, was justified, he said that was a tough question.

“I don’t know. The (overall park) traffic doesn’t justify the expense for the winter. When I’m dealing with $60 a visitor in the winter, for access to the interior of the park, vs. $10 in the summer, does it justify the expense?" he said.

While Sylvan Pass might harbor wolverines -- tracks were found there in 2009 --, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed to list the carnivore as a threatened species, a listing that could affect the park's use of explosives to control avalanches on the pass, the final winter-use plan took a wait-and-see approach on how a listing might impact winter use of the pass.

Sylvan Pass, the document said, represents less than 0.1 percent of wolverine habitat, and the animals feed on winter-killed deer, bison, and elk, which are not present on the pass in winter.

"Procedurally, it is not feasible to examine impacts or manage for species that are not yet listed. Should wolverines come under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the NPS will consult with the USFWS and, if necessary, make adjustments to the winter-use management framework," park planners said.

Comments

Yellowstone in winter is such a precious gift. And one, in my opinion, that is best enjoyed when surrounded by peace and quiet and clean air. Why must we destroy everything that is wild and unfettered with motor vehicles? I advocate no snowmobiles, and a very limited number of snowcoaches. Once again, if Yellowstone's plan is implemented, those who make money from motorized recreation win, at the expense of the sanctity of nature and contemplative recreation.

And no cars in the summer, Barbara?

EC, for what it's worth, past studies have shown that while there are tremendously more vehicles in the park during the summer months, those vehicles collectively are cleaner in emissions and quieter than the snowmobiles/snowcoaches in winter. (Motorcycles are another issue, though.)

Also, in winter inversions and somewhat more stable weather systems tend to hold pollutants and even sounds closer to the ground, and the park by the very nature of winter is naturally quieter -- ice covers ponds, lakes and in some cases rivers and creeks so the sound of water is muffled, and there are no leaves are on trees to rustle. As a result, machine sounds really are amplified.

In summer you have more breezes and storm systems that more quickly dissipate pollutants, and the natural sounds of aspens quaking in the breezes, birds singing and calling, and water moving through creeks, streams and winters are more pronounced.

Plus, in summer wildlife can spread out over the park's 2.2 million acres, while in winter ungulates tend to congregate down along the river valleys, which in many places are along the roads that snowmobiles/snowcoaches travel.

I've always had very mixed feelings about winter access to Yellowstone, but think recent attempts to solve some of its associated problems and abuses have been reasonable and reasonably successful.

In my not so humble personal opinion, prohibiting 2-cycle snowmobile engines was one of the best moves in all this. Limiting the numbers of snowmobiles comes next. Requiring that all snowmobile parties be led by licensed (not sure if that's the right word) guides was about equal with the other two. In the past, the noise and pollution impacts of snowmobiles was terrible as was the wild riding and harrassment of wildlife.

I've taken two snowcoach trips into the park in recent years and based on what I've observed (and heard and smelled) the policies seem to be working. On each trip, we encountered a couple of snowmobile tours. All the riders were behaving very well. In a couple of instances I was able to witness encounters between snowmobile parties and bison. In both cases, the guides held their riders back until the bison decided it was time to leave the roadway. Once, at the warming hut in Canyon, I heard a guide administer a severe scolding to one of his clients for having taken his machine off the established roadway. The snowcoaches are reasonably quiet (much quieter than the hordes of Harleys that grace the roads in summer just before or after the gathering in Sturgis). I've been extremely well impressed with the snowcoach drivers. Traveling by snowcoach has allowed this old man to realize a lifetime dream and visit Yellowstone in winter. Something that, at my age now, would have been impossible on skis.

I very much disagree with the idea of keeping Sylvan Pass open in winter, but understand that decision has been forced upon NPS management by political pressure from the Cody Chamber of Commerce and probably some members of Congress. Unfortunately, political pressures of all kinds too often dictate management policies.

Barbara, I'm in the process right now of reading your book about Yosemite. I was going to say that I'm enjoying it, but realized I can't say that. How can anyone enjoy reading the upsetting story you had to tell? But I'm sure gaining an education. Even back when I worked in Yosemite between 1968 and 1970, the story was the same as it is now. It would be very, very interesting to learn how much of the "mismanagment" of that park is due to outside political pressures coming from people who covet the dollars a place like Yosemite (or any park) can stuff into their pockets. I really believe that much of what may appear to be NPS incompetence has its root cause in the power of people who can, in some way, purchase the influence of other persons of power in state capitals or in Congress itself. I wish you had explored some of that in your book.

While I wish it were possible for NPS to stand up and always deliver on its mandate to "preserve unimpaired," reality is that in practice it's necessary for park managers to try their best to "preserve as unimpaired as possible." As long as people of power and the Almighty Dollar are involved in the mix, that's going to be very, very difficult. Barbara's book makes that clear. Yosemite Valley's problems began long before the people who presently try to balance the equation there. Her book also brings to light the convoluted mess of sometimes contradictory laws, regulations, and mandates that managers must try to navigate.

It's a heck of a mess, but thank goodness we have people willing to try to tackle it. Sometimes they will fail, but hopefully, most of the time they will succeed. We can't quit trying.

Kurt,

Could you point me to the study that says pollution is worse in the winter than the summer?

EC, I could, but it's in the bowels of the Traveler's archives, and I have a press conference in 15 minutes. If I get a chance later I'll rummage around. But trust me, I'm not making it up.

Lee Dalton, I found your commentary interesting because you are commenting from the viewpoint of having actually experienced a subject being written about. I have a tendency to be knee-jerk about things, sometimes, so it's a nice eye-opener to read others' experiences and to remind me that there are two sides to every story, whether I like the other side or not. And, while I have not yet had the good fortune to see Yellowstone in the winter, I agree that I might not be able to do so without something like a snowcoach to take me out there and realize a dream. National parks are for everybody, and some of those "everybodies" might not be able to realize their own dreams without vehicular opportunities or other such things as trails for special needs people, etc.

Kurt, you may have mentioned this and I've somehow missed it in your article: would the NPS make a little more money by offering up these added winter implementations (sans the amount of money it would cost to keep Sylvan Pass open)? After all of the budget cuts that will hit the park service in the gut, is this something that is being offered up to add back what would otherwise be lost revenue?

Thank you for your kind comments, Ms. Latson. You really do need to get up there in winter. It's unforgetable. Best of all, it's pretty reasonably priced, too.

The Sylvan Pass issue is, if I recall correctly almost entirely due to political pressure stemming from Cody, Wyoming. (Tell me if I'm wrong, please, Kurt) I think it has only been a few years that the pass has been open, and that its opening has resulted in some very serious injuries and maybe even the death of one ranger in an avalanche. Here are just two links to a huge number of items found when I Googled "sylvan pass winter opening."

http://www.jhnewsandguide.com/article.php?art_id=7074

http://www.hcn.org/issues/41.2/political-guns

Nothing galls me more than the intense political pressures on park managers from people who place dollars above priceless heritage.

And a note, I just reached Chapter 25 in Barbara Moritsch's book. In that chapter, she begins to explore political and economic pressures that have probably turned Yosemite Valley into a sacrifice to the Gods of Economics.

My family and I have been to Yellowstone many times-- during the summer and winter.Like someone said above there are two sides to everything and everyone has an opinion. The year we went during the winter was an incredible experience and we did it on a snow mobile tour. Our guides were very professional and acutely aware of the controversy concerning snowmobiles. Before we started we were told the rules-- and everyone followed them. When bison were approaching we moved out of the way,got off the snowmobiles on the opposite side and watched in amazement as they walked within steps of us-- only stopping to look at us eye to eye. We had bald eagles in the trees above us and stopped to photograph the swans.Belive it or not the experience brought several of us to tears telling the stories afterwards. I've been there during the summer and spring when there ar multitudes of cars,trucks and motorcycles also---- the pollution and noise is 100 times that of that produced by the snowmobiles. Like anything there has to be limit and a compromise.

Thank you, Lee Dalton, for your comments about The Soul of Yosemite. You summed it up quite well when you said: "I really believe that much of what may appear to be NPS incompetence has its root cause in the power of people who can, in some way, purchase the influence of other persons of power in state capitals or in Congress itself." I think it would serve the parks and park visitors well if these political machinations could be exposed to light and scrutiny. It would be great to see NPS managers draw lines in the sand and expose the real sources of pressure when it comes to activities that harm the environment and/or degrade the visitor experience in parks, but that kind of action can be career-changing or career-ending. So that leaves it up to those of us on the outside who can and who care to step up and do the exposing to the best of our ability.

Thanks, Barbara. Yet almost all of these political machinations take place in deeply shadowed places under layers of secrecy. Not only would it require incredible personal and professional integrity and courage on the part of park managers to stand up to it, the hidden nature of so much of it would make it almost impossible for even a courageous person to stand up to it. I doubt that even someone like a park superintendent caught in the crosshairs would be able to pinpoint its sources. A lot of incredibly smart detective work would be required to trace it back to its origins.

The most frightening thing about it all, in my opinion, is that this sort of thing has become accepted within our circles of politics. Such things as the unlimited flow of anonymous money into elections via the Citizens United decision only add to the hidden power. Thus greed and money are free to breed corruption and fear anyplace they find opposition to their agendas.

You mention political influences in your book, but were you at all able to track down where and from whom it was coming? The people at the sources of these things are no different than playground bullies. But their money and the secrecy it buys allow them to avoid a trip to the principal's office.

EDIT: I just read part of page 219 in your book, Barbara. Perhaps better than an analogy of a playground bully, these power interests might better be compared to cowbirds and their babies. Political webs, like those in nature, are so complex that unraveling them may well be completely impossible. And that is just as true in a small park or a large one like Yellowstone or Yosemite. All we can do is try to stay alert and keep working to try to make a difference.

I find it hard to believe that 400+ snowmobiles are more detrimental in YNP than 10,000 cars and motorcycles in the height of Summer. I'm sorry, caving to the vocal few who do not want any people in the park if they could have their way. Someone will have to explain this to me because my common sense cannot fathom this.