Norton needs more than photo op on snowmobile

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At my daughter’s house in Montana, preparing for my winter excursion into Yellowstone National Park, I glimpse a windblown Interior Secretary Gale Norton beaming from the front page of the local paper. Her two-day tour of the park’s landmarks, a dream photo op orchestrated by West Yellowstone merchants, covered 150 miles by snowmobile and a short snowcoach ride.

I give her credit for finally seeking first-hand experience after weighing in on snowmobile regulation over the last four years from Washington. I can’t say I agree with her conclusions. Her quote, “From what I’ve seen, snowmobiles seem to fit quite well with winter use,” seems stunningly inane. I mean, how well would they fit in summer? More chilling was her view that she sees a place for unguided snowmobiles in the park. “We do want to keep open the possibility of self-guided tours.” Like the 17 rogue riders who crashed into the park one night and caused irreparable damage in their quest for untrammeled powder?

The Clinton Administration laid out a fairly good plan for phasing out snowmobile use, decreasing the number allowed each year, barring the noisy two-stroke machines and requiring licensed guides to keep riders on groomed roads.

Then the West Yellowstone merchants got into the act, donating heavily to the Bush campaign and lobbying for increases in the numbers allowed daily into the park. To their credit, livery owners changed over to four strokes, promoting the quieter and somewhat cleaner machines as better for riders and the environment. Problem was, by the time the feds announced rule changes last year, people were so confused they had made other plans for winter riding. This year, while the number of snowmobiles allowed daily was doubled to 720, admissions through the West Entrance were down 17 percent from last season, which was 60 percent less than the year before.

Snowcoaches, which make the park accessible to those who can’t or don’t care to ride snowmobiles, are steadily gaining in popularity. The one Norton rode in was a luxury van conversion that holds up to 12 people. The smaller, older, noisier Bombardier, a Canadian import, holds about six in relative discomfort, with noise levels precluding conversation and noticeable exhaust fumes. They’re sturdy but difficult to steer, particularly on roads with bare patches in the snow. The driver has to put on one wheel over the tracks where roads are bare and remove it where snow cover is good.

I will say that last year it was a Bombardier that pulled our luxury coach out of deep snow when our driver had to avoid 20 snowmobiles blasting down the middle of the road.

If Norton had ridden in one of these rugged vehicles, she would have had little good to say about snowcoaches. But then, she was there to placate snowmobile renters anyway.

Having walked, snowshoed and driven (the road across the north end of the park is plowed and open to wheeled traffic all year), I prefer the luxury snowcoach. That is, until they let me strap on my skis again.

People who use snowshoes and Nordic skis to get around are the ones most opposed to snowmobiles. Even the four strokes break the stunning silence and solitude one can experience in that amazing frozen landscape. And while cleaner than the two strokes, one machine still pollutes as much as 70 regular-size pickups.

Norton said she saw no sign that wildlife felt stressed in the presence of their snowmobiles. This just shows how little she understands about the animals and how they have to adapt. Obviously a bison weighing several tons is unlikely to be frightened by a vehicle a fraction of its size. They use the roads, often causing huge traffic jams, because it’s easier to get around than trudging through deep snow. And, of course, these are the same animals that have to contend with long lines of cars and buses in summer. The ones that survive get over it.

The real problem comes when “self-guided” snowmobiles leave the road and encroach on grazing grounds where bison, elk and deer are having a tough time finding food. And if docile elk and bison are disturbed, the predators have an even tougher time getting a meal. Red fox and coyote use a keen sense of hearing to find rodents beneath the snow, a much more difficult hunt where snowmobile tracks pack the powder and engines drown out the subtle sound of scurrying feet.

Ms. Norton should have another go at Yellowstone before guiding new regulations for snowmobile use. Maybe we could get her on skis or snowshoes for a trek into the back country, where wolves call to each other in the predawn stillness. Where even one snowmobile would be an obscene intrusion.