Managing Yellow-stone in winter, more politics than science

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To hear some tell it, this has been the year of the great snowmobile controversy in Yellowstone National Park.

In truth, the issue of winter access to Yellowstone has been studied for 10 years at a cost to taxpayers of about $10 million. Based on all that study, the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have twice concluded that snowcoaches offer the safest and best access. Were it not for the dueling judges-one upholding the Clinton Plan to restrict and phase out snowmobiles, the other favoring the Bush order to increase the number of sleds allowed through the park gates-the Park Service would have a plan in place. And that plan would be based on the studies and record-breaking public comment, which overwhelmingly favored snowcoaches.

But the legal hassling isn’t over yet, driven by business interests in West Yellowstone, a town that desperately needs to diversify its economy. In all fairness, the snowmobile liveries that replaced their two-stroke sleds with four-stroke machines to comply with new regulations are now in a world of hurt. But they needn’t be. There are more than 300 miles of snowmobile trails outside and adjacent to the park where no guides are required. Forest service snowmobile trails are open from December through early April with no use fees and, unlike the park, riders can leave the trails to challenge deep powder. They need to advertise this to snowmobile enthusiasts and take park visitors on snowcoach tours. Cross country skiers can stay at their hotels, eat in their restaurants and take the coaches to Old Faithful and make day trips to explore the park by ski or snowshoe.

I have to admit that until this year I didn’t really get it. I knew I hated two-stroke engines because my grandson had a two-stroke motorcycle. The scream of that engine was like a dentist’s drill amplified a hundred times. It belched blue-black smoke that could asphyxiate you at 50 yards in the open air. It’s true the four-strokes are a bit quieter. But not that much cleaner. One two-stroke pollutes as much as 100 cars; a four-stroke emits the same as about 70. Not all that clean. It’s no wonder the park gatekeepers needed gas masks. A year ago last September my daughters, their two toddlers and I drove through Yellowstone, seeing the park the way the average visitor does. We stopped overnight at the Snow Lodge and saw Old Faithful. That was about it. I didn’t get it, what this place was all about. This year I spent a week exploring the park in the silence of winter. I photographed elk, bison, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, river otter, coyotes and wolves. In the Lamar Valley before dawn I heard wolves calling to each other across three miles of frozen wilderness. It was awesome. A snowmobile would have been an obscene intrusion.

On the one day we chartered a snowcoach to see the interior of the park-Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley-we passed several convoys of snowmobiles. They were having a very different experience from ours. Our snowcoach, which accommodated 10, our camera gear and the driver, was warm and comfortable with big windows through which we could view everything. It stopped wherever we wanted to photograph and at several warming huts. The fact is the best way to see Yellowstone is not astride a snowmobile following a guide. About all they get to see are the backsides of a dozen other snowmobiles. The Wilderness Society, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Parks Conservation Association all support access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park on snowcoaches and discontinuing snowmobiles because it’s an inappropriate use in a national park, according to Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies regional director for The Wilderness Society. He quotes a former Yellowstone Park superintendent who used to say, “You don’t roller skate through the National Museum of Fine Art, even though it would be a great place to skate.”

What it boils down to is that the Park Service should be allowed to base its policy on science and common sense instead of industry profits. Politicians courting a small constituency of local business interests should butt out and let park officials get back to managing the park. They’ve got plenty to do corralling bison escapees and keeping track of the occasional errant wolf. All sources of more controversy, which we hope will not end up in courts.