CHEYENNE, Wyo. – The National Park Service proposes to increase the number of snowmobiles and other snow-machines allowed into Yellowstone National Park. Despite the increase, the agency says new pollution and noise control requirements should curtail the environmental effects.
The agency's proposal is drawing praise from snowmobile enthusiasts and a Wyoming state government keen on more tourism dollars. Some conservationists, however, say the agency could do more to protect the nation's first national park.
The default position for national parks is to allow no snowmobiles at all. Officials at Yellowstone have been on a rollercoaster ride of court challenges and environmental appeals for more than a decade as they have floated a series of proposals aimed at accommodating traditional snowmobile traffic.
The public has 45 days from the June 29 release of the plan to comment. The Park Service also plans to collect comment at a series of meetings in Wyoming and Montana later this month.
Dan Wenk, Yellowstone superintendent, said Thursday that his agency endorses allowing a maximum of 480 snowmobiles plus 60 snow coaches per day into Yellowstone.
The number of snow coaches, meaning passenger vans retrofitted with skis and tracks, could double in the future if they meet noise and pollution standards. The average number of snowmobiles per day couldn't exceed 342 over a winter season.
The Park Service has set daily limits of 318 snowmobiles and 78 snow coaches in recent years. Wenk said the park's daily average was 190 snowmobiles and about 35 snow coaches last winter.
The agency's new proposal would set lower noise and emissions requirements for snowmobiles starting in the 2017-2017 winter season. Beginning that season, snow coaches also would be required to have gasoline or diesel engines of recent manufacture.
The agency endorses allowing one non-commercially guided group of up to five snowmobiles to enter each of the park's four entrances each day.
Wenk said the alternative his agency endorses, "provides for a cleaner park, it provides for a quieter park. Greater noise-free intervals, less sounds. It does allow for increases in visitation, while reducing associated transportation impacts."
The agency's proposal also calls for keeping the eastern entrance to Yellowstone open, which typically requires crews to use artillery to trigger avalanches on Sylvan Pass to allow safe passage to the park for snowmobilers from Cody.
Wenk said his agency spent $125,000 last winter keeping Sylvan Pass open to accommodate 110 people, of which 87 were visitors and the rest guides. He said the cost to the government to keep the pass open was $1,150 per rider and the total cost to keep the park open in winter was about $2.5 million for 100,000 visitors.
Five years ago, the National Park Service had decided to abandon efforts to keep Sylvan Pass open during winter months after concluding it wasn't cost-effective. The agency relented after a strong lobbying effort from the state.
"We've tried to provide accurate cost data so people would have the right information on which to make their case." Wenk said of the decision to keep Sylvan Pass open. "In this whole process, we may not have this whole process right, but we do have opportunities for change and adjustment, and we're always willing to listen to the public."
Jerimiah Rieman, natural resource policy adviser to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, said Thursday that the governor was pleased to see the Park Service call for Sylvan Pass to remain open and also pleased that the agency endorsed an alternative that called for allowing additional snowmobiles, as well as allowing non-commercially guided access to the park.
Jack Welch, a leader of the snowmobile advocacy groups called the Yellowstone Task Force and the Blue Ribbon Coalition, said Thursday that he's generally pleased with the Park Service position but continues to review planning documents.
"The devil is in the details," said Welch, who said he's been snowmobiling in Yellowstone since the late 1960s. "First blush is we're pleased."
Mike Clark of Bozeman, Mont., is executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group that focuses on the park.
"The park has put off enforcing any standards on best available technology until 2017, and that's perplexing," Clark said. "Why would you continue to allow these machines to operate in the park when they could be much cleaner than they are?"
Clark said his group would favor restricting winter travel in the park to snow coaches, which he said are cleaner than snowmobiles. And it doesn't make sense for the federal government to spend the money to keep Sylvan Pass open in the winter, he said.
"The average number of people going in per day is minuscule, and they're using artillery to keep the pass open," he said. "Somebody's going to get hurt up there, or killed eventually, and it's not necessary. It's too dangerous, and too expensive."