Yellowstone National Park is no longer the lightning rod it once was regarding whether snowmobiles should be allowed. But the tug of war that tightened when a decision announced in the waning days of the Clinton administration was then immediately reversed by the incoming Bush administration is still at play.
In marked contrast to the big headlines and charged rhetoric of the past, however, Yellowstone’s gateway communities and businesses have changed their winter business models to match the shifting profile of the average winter visitor.
While some businesses look wistfully back on the days when thousands of snowmobiles could be buzzing around Yellowstone on peak days, others are flourishing by chasing an evolving market – away from snowmobiles and toward snowcoaches, cross-country skiers and visitors much more focused on learning about Yellowstone, rather than riding through it on nimble two-stroke snowmobiles.
“In a nutshell, this is as different as day and night,” said John Sacklin, Yellowstone’s chief planner.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Snowmobiles were first allowed in Yellowstone in 1963 and attracted growing legions of motorized recreationists eager to explore the park. By the late 1990’s, the winter experience in Yellowstone – and particularly the West Entrance at West Yellowstone, Montana – was characterized by swarms of two-stroke snowmobiles that were noisy, polluting and quick to accelerate. When peak visitation days combined with cold weather inversions, Park Service staff piped oxygen into gateway shelters to counter the buildup of smoky exhaust and carbon monoxide. In little more than three decades, winter visitation in the late 90’s rose from mere handfuls to 150,000 visitors.
In 1997, animal rights group Fund for Animals filed a lawsuit to ban grooming on all park roads, effectively banning snowmobiles. Upon settlement of the suit, the Park Service conducted an environmental impact statement that led to a 2000 decision to ban most snowmobiles by 2001 on grounds the machines damage the park’s air quality, wildlife, natural soundscapes and the enjoyment of other park visitors.
That decision was then suspended by the Bush administration. A series of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits filed by snowmobile interests, conservationists and local governments eager to help winter businesses followed. The Park Service conducted a series of studies and plans that ultimately called for best-available-technology (BAT) snowmobiles, mandated guides for visitors and caps on numbers of snowmobiles and snowcoaches allowed on any given day.
All those studies cost $10 million and invariably concluded the best way to protect wildlife, soundscape and natural resources was to ban snowmobiles. During the Bush administration era, the Park Service never picked the alternative that would best protect the environment.
In the mid- to late-2000’s, the daily cap on snowmobiles bounced around a bit, but fell over time from 720 to 540 to the 318 of today, while the daily cap on snowcoaches has remained constant at 78.
A CHANGING EXPERIENCE
The BAT requirement resulted in a massive market shift from the two-stroke engines to quieter, less polluting four-stroke engines. These heavier machines were more suited for touring than thrills. At the same time, the requirement for trained guides put the kibosh on bad, spontaneous behavior like buzzing wildlife, racing or leaving groomed roads to “highmark” nearby slopes.
As for snowcoaches, passenger numbers climbed. Drivers doubled as guides, providing running commentary on what could be seen from the snowcoach, and readily answering questions from customers. Snowmobile groups also had guides, but interaction was limited to when the groups periodically stopped.
“We’ve had a number of customers who first came out to ride snowmobiles, then shifted the following year to snowcoaches, because they liked learning more about Yellowstone,” said Randy Roberson of Yellowstone Vacations in West Yellowstone. His 33-year-old business has been evolving from an emphasis on snowmobiles to an emphasis on snowcoaches. More and more, he said, visitors are coming to Yellowstone with cross-country skies, snowshoes, cameras and spotting scopes in hand.
Indeed, of this summer’s public comments on the new winter use plan, the Park Service received 9,099 pieces of correspondence during the scoping period.
From these, it coded 13,932 comments. Of these:
* 7,332 supported a snowcoach future for Yellowstone (53 percent)
* 424 supported the “Plow Roads” Alternative (less than 3 percent)
* 65 were coded as supporting more snowmobiles (less than 1 percent)
That’s not to say that there aren’t still ardent fans of snowmobiles out there – the entire Wyoming Congressional delegation, for example. Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, as well as U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, Republicans, have all called for continued use of snowmobiles and higher numbers of snowmobiles than currently allowed.
Last year, during confirmation hearings for Jon Jarvis as the new superintendent of Yellowstone, Barrasso pressed hard for Jarvis to commit to a future for snowmobiles. “At this point I cannot commit one way or another,” responded Jarvis. “I don’t know the details of this, but I do commit to winter use and winter access, and a sustainable decision, one that can provide continuity and planning for the gateway communities and for the park itself.”
But even strong supporters of snowmobiles acknowledge that the situation probably wasn’t sustainable back when peak days saw 1,400 snowmobiles in the park.
“We were victims of our own success,” said Clyde Seeley of Three Bear Lodge in West Yellowstone. West Yellowstone went from one to two strong seasons between 1970 and 1990.
“People just couldn’t believe the beauty of the park in winter,” said Seeley. He compared the introduction of snowmobiles to Yellowstone to the arrival of passenger trains in 1908. “People came from all over,” Seeley said, referring to both developments.
The snowmobile boom led to the construction of a new Holiday Inn, plus 10 other hotels.
But when the pendulum swung toward restrictions and whether there would even be a season, gateway communities that had come to depend on winter travelers suffered.
In the last few winters, said Seeley, most of those new hotels haven’t been open.
Uncertainty kept winter visitors away from Yellowstone in droves. Even when 740 snowmobiles per day were allowed, average numbers didn’t approach half that number. Every business that depended on snowmobiles in surrounding gateway communities felt the pinch.
West Yellowstone, for example, once sent 1,300 snowmobiles into the park on peak days – many were rented two-stroke snowmobiles. This winter, West Yellowstone is allowed 160 snowmobiles per day in the park – four-stroke snowmobiles that must be rented, all with best available technology (BAT) to make them quieter and cleaner. None can be taken into the park without trained guides.
“One hundred and sixty snowmobiles is not enough” for a local economy that built a commercial infrastructure designed for 1,300 machines on peak days, Seeley said. He’d love to see a cap of 720 snowmobiles per day, but thought 500 would work. Even better, he said, would be the variable alternative where gateway businesses could have holiday season peak days again, but that the average would be much lower and therefore sustainable.
Yet in a 2008 environmental assessment, Yellowstone Park officials downplayed the variable approach, saying, “This alternative would allow more vehicles on holidays and weekends and fewer during mid-week periods. This concept was set aside because of the administrative challenge of overseeing variable daily limits and because of the potential for major adverse impacts on the higher use days and denying even more people access on mid-week days.”
Over on the east side of Yellowstone (Cody, Powell and Meeteesee), the Sleeping Giant Ski Area has reopened. The area now offers downhill and Nordic skiing, ice-climbing, snowmobiling and snowcoaching outside the park, as well as winter fishing and wildlife watching.
All this came about after a huge controversy to keep open the Sylvan Pass area, an area rife with avalanche runs. Only one or two snowmobiles a day enter Yellowstone from the East Entrance. No snowcoaches ran last year into Yellowstone from the East Entrance and it is doubtful anyone will sign up to do so this year, despite recruitment efforts by the Park Service.
On the south side of Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is no longer caught up in the Yellowstone snowmobile issue because that park has its own plan:
* Twenty-five snowmobiles per day, with no best available technology (BAT) or guiding requirement, will be allowed to travel on the Grassy Lake Road to provide access to the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
* On Jackson Lake, an initial daily limit of 25 BAT snowmobiles will provide access to ice-fishing opportunities for people possessing appropriate fishing gear and a valid Wyoming fishing license.
Anyone planning to ride into Yellowstone from Flagg Ranch needs to make arrangements to do so on a BAT snowmobile and follow a guide into the park.