More than a decade of debate, disagreement, and litigation took a step closer to settlement Tuesday when the National Park Service published in the Federal Register its final rule for managing recreational winter-use in Yellowstone National Park.
Though it will be another 30 days before the rule is officially adopted, the National Parks Conservation Association, Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and Greater Yellowstone Coalition called it a vast improvement over past efforts and applauded park officials for their work on it.
However, Rick Smith of the Coalition said, "I think we need to be careful" of declaring winners and losers in the matter.
"This isn't a big victory for the environmentalists, this isn't a big victory for snowmobile enthusiasts. This is a big victory for Yellowstone. And I think that's what's important," he told the Traveler.
Under the plan, which would go into effect for the winter of 2014-15, a group of up to 10 snowmobiles would be seen as one "transportation event" instead of 10 separate snowmobiles entering the park. The plan would allow 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. By clustering snowmobilers in groups of 7-10 machines, overall noise should be reduced across the park since it wouldn't be spread out across the Grand Loop, proponents say.
Additionally, beginning with the winter of 2015-16, snowmobiles would have to feature "Best Available Technology" in terms of noise and emissions reduction, and snowcoaches would have to follow suit the next winter. Maximum speed limits would be set at 35 mph for snowmobiles and 25 mph for snowcoaches.
The final rule, which would apply to the park's own snowmobile fleet, also would allow up to four non-commercially guided snowmobile groups of up to five snowmobiles to enter the park each day, and would allow Sylvan Pass on the eastern side of Yellowstone to remain open, conditions permitting. The four daily slots for non-commercially guided trips would be awarded through a lottery, and the guides would have to successfully complete a Non-commercially Guided Snowmobile Access Program that park officials are crafting.
“This is a reasonable plan. I think they did ... a pretty good job of putting together an alternative that all sides could agree to and that would maintain the current conditions and the current noise reductions and emissions reductions that people have come to enjoy over the past ten years," said Kristen Brengel, the senior director of legislation and policy for the NPCA, from her Washington, D.C., office.
Two elements of the plan that continue to remain problematic for the NPCA, Coalition, and GYC are the provisions for the non-commercially guided trips and for keeping Sylvan Pass open.
“Sylvan Pass has been one of the real sticking points over the years with winter use, and I think it’s far from a perfect solution on that aspect of the plan," said Scott Christensen, the GYC's conservation director. "We would hope that the park would be prudent in managing that route into the park. It costs a lot of money to keep it open in the winter for a pretty small number of people.”
“That’s maybe one of the aspects that we thought could have been improved through this final rule that wasn’t.”
Mr. Christensen did acknowledge, however, the political pressure coming from Wyoming to keep the pass open.
"There’s a lot of very passionate people in Cody and in other parts of Wyoming that advocated strongly for keeping that entrance open, and we understand that position and the rationale behind it," he said from his Bozeman, Montana, office. "It’s an inappropraite use in the park that’s incredibly expensive and dangerous, too, for park personnel. ... It’s one of the parts of the plan that is less than perfect, for sure, and we hope it will receive some more attention and evaluation going forward.”
During a telephone call from his office, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said the decision to wait until the winter of 2014-15 to institute the BAT requirements was tied in part to giving outfitters lead time to prepare for the change.
"We need to do a couple of things. No. 1, all those (snowmobile/snowcoach) concession contracts in the park expire in the spring of 2014. We need to put new concession contracts in place," he explained. "We need to allow for opportunity for people to change over their fleets. Most businesses, the minimum amount of time they change over their fleets is once every two years, half their fleet every year, and many operators do it once every three years, or a third of their fleet every year.
"So just in terms of the business model, the burden in terms of placing that on business was too great to implement it sooner," said Superintendent Wenk, who added that there are provisions in the plan to protect park resources at current levels, if not better.
The new standard also requires snowmobiles and snowcoaches to limit their noise levels to 67 decibels (with a 2-decibel allowance to take into consideration variables in the field), a significant step down from the previous allowance of 72 decibels.
Regarding Sylvan Pass, Superintendent went said the park budgets approximately $125,000 a year for avalanche control and other safety measures for over-snow visitors crossing the 8,524-foot- high pass. Even if federal funding cuts exert more pressure on Yellowstone's budget, the superintendent doesn't foresee the pass being closed to save money.
"If I said I was closing Sylvan Pass from the East Entrance to save $125,000, I'll almost guarantee you somebody's going to find me $125,000," said Superintendent Wenk in a nod to Wyoming politics, which in the past have reversed park plans to end winter travel over the pass.
Though the strong possibility that the winter-use issue will be resolved would remove a thorny issue from the superintendent's inbox, he didn't expect to be relaxing any time soon.
"I would disagree with you that this is the thorniest issue," said Superintendent Wenk. "A lot of times I sometimes equate a lot of the issues in Yellowstone to math problems. Restoration of cutthroat trout (in Yellowstone Lake) is sort of like simple math. You reduce the number of lake trout, and cutthroat trout increase.
"I basically said winter-use is perhaps algebra, or advanced algebra, but bison management in Yellowstone is calculus. It's probably the most difficult issue."