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Return of the Bubbleheads

The National Park Service knows snowmobiles are wrong for Yellowstone. So why are they working so hard to let more in?

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Butted against the west entrance to the nation's oldest and most beloved national park, and with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, West Yellowstone is like a Wild West town where the cowboys ride snowmobiles instead of horses. The roads, snowpacked much of the winter, are dotted with businesses with names like the Brandin' Iron Inn, the Corral Bar and Bullwinkle's Saloon. During the white months, more snowmobiles are parked in front of the town's cowboy-branded businesses than cars, and the unmistakable mosquito-on-steroids whine of snowmobiles is ubiquitous.

From the 1960s, when the first snowmobilers began exploring Yellowstone National Park, until its boom in the late 1990s, West Yellowstone built its winter economy around snowmobile tourism. As the popularity of touring the park on motorized sleds grew, the town thrived.

Last month the National Park Service (NPS) released its official draft of the latest in a lengthy and costly series of studies that will guide Yellowstone's winter use. Park managers tried to ban snowmobile use in 2000, but West Yellowstone and other gateway communities protested, claiming an end to snowmobiling in the park would mean certain economic doom.

But today the number of snowmobiles traversing Yellowstone is a fraction of what it was in 2000, and West Yellowstone continues to survive.

The community hasn't fully moved beyond its snowmobiling past, however, and starting with the March 27 release of the Park Service's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for winter-use planning, the clock is ticking on the public's opportunity to comment on the park's--and by association, West Yellowstone's--future. This will likely be the last chance the public will have to weigh in on whether snowmobiles should remain a part of Yellowstone's winter experience.

And while people in West Yellowstone applaud the park's preferred plan to continue to allow 720 snowmobiles in the park, most of the rest of the country--by a margin of 4-1--wants to see an end to snowmobiling in Yellowstone once and for all.

A final Park Service decision later this year should lay a clear path for the community going forward. But depending on which course the agency plots, the health of the park itself may be thrown into uncertainty.

Last June, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the former governor of Idaho, declared that "when there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant."

Kempthorne's proclamation was a reaffirmation of the National Park Service Organic Act, which created the agency and has guided its management philosophy since Congress made it law in 1916. It was significant because the previous six years had seen an unprecedented politicization of the Park Service, highlighted by an extraordinary attack on the agency's philosophical underpinnings by politically appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Paul Hoffman. In 2005 Hoffman--a former head of the Cody, Wyoming Chamber of Commerce and a one-time congressional aide to Vice President Dick Cheney--tried to rewrite the Park Service's management policies. His version gutted the document of its historic mission to protect park resources, and contained language that loosened regulations on motorized vehicle access, environmental impacts and commercialization.

Hoffman's draft was universally condemned, and Interior was embarrassed back to the drawing board. Two drafts later the agency adopted, in large measure, the same pre-Hoffman policies it had approved in 2001.

For many, Kempthorne's announcement was an assurance that the Park Service would stick to its core mission: "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." It was, in effect, an utter rejection of the Hoffman doctrine.

"He essentially pledged allegiance to the mission of the Park Service," says Bill Wade, chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and former superintendent at Virginia's Shenandoah National Park.

In late March, seven of the eight living former directors of the Park Service--dating back to the Lyndon B. Johnson administration--three former deputy NPS directors and a former Yellowstone superintendent signed a letter in strong opposition to the agency's preferred plan.

"It is our profound hope that in our country's oldest national park you will insist that your commitment be upheld," the letter to Kempthorne states.

"To have seven out of the eight former directors ... come forward and sign a letter like this is absolutely unprecedented as far as I know," Wade says. What happens in Yellowstone, he says, will set the course of the National Park Service for years to come.

"When I got there it was obvious that things had gotten out of control," says Bob Seibert, a retired Yellowstone West District ranger who began working at the park in 1991. "At every corner you saw impacts, from air quality, to visitor experience, to the quality of the roads and wildlife impacts to violations by snowmobilers."

In 1990, in response to complaints, Yellowstone officials implemented a winter use plan that set a threshold at 143,000 snowmobile visits. It wasn't long before that number was exceeded; it took a lawsuit to get the agency to do a massive environmental impact study, the first of four over the next eight years. The final study, released in 2000, called for phasing out snowmobiles by 2004.

The snowmobile industry then sued the Park Service, claiming the science used to justify the ban wasn't sound. The agency agreed to redo the study. The 2003 research came to the same conclusions, but called for a reversal of the previous Park Service decision by allowing 950 snowmobiles in the park per day.

Conservationists sued again, and a federal judge in Washington, D.C. ordered a reinstatement of the 2000 ban. A suit from the state of Wyoming followed, and a federal judge ordered the Park Service to conduct yet another study. In the meantime, the Park Service allowed 720 guided best-available-technology (BAT) snowmobiles into Yellowstone each day. The four-stroke snowmobiles use quieter and cleaner engines than their two-stroke counterparts, which are now banned in the park.

The studies came to the same conclusion, year after year: Snowmobiles are bad for the park. That's why conservationists and snowcoach-only advocates want the Park Service to reinstate the 2000 plan to phase out snowmobiles. More to the point, they want the agency to base its decision on its own research.

Since 1997, the popularity of Yellowstone's snowcoaches has steadily risen; today, nearly as many people visit the park via snowcoach as they do on snowmobiles.

Former West Yellowstone mayor and snowmobile/snowcoach guide Jerry Johnson says there's a simple explanation for the shifting balance: It's "because of all the controversy and misinformation out there," Johnson says.

Johnson is pleased that the Park Service intends to continue allowing snowmobiles, but he doesn't like the 720-sled limit.

"I think they should keep it open," Johnson says. "If it gets up to 800 snowmobiles and that isn't a problem, then I think they should keep monitoring it. I don't think they should just put a cap on it."

Others point out that snowmobiling is declining in popularity across the board and the Park Service continues to favor a dwindling user base. According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturer's Association, worldwide sales peaked in 1997 at 260,735 and fell to 173,773 in 2005, a 33 percent decline. Here in the United States sales dropped from 109,750 in 2005 to 91,670 in 2006, a 17 percent decrease in one year alone.

"[The Park Service] continues to favor a fairly narrow set of special and local interest in selecting the preferred alternative that they have," Wade says.

Critics wonder why the agency is courting another legal challenge, and risking the health of the park, by kowtowing to an industry that's in steep decline.

The EPA--which independently reviews all NEPA documents--said the 1999 EIS had "among the most thorough and substantial science base that [EPS has] seen supporting a NEPA document." Since then, the Park Service's adherence to its own mandates and the analysis and presentation of its own science has shifted dramatically.

"In this document they are pushing the law and some of the key scientific findings into appendices and graphs--essentially into the shadows--so they aren't easily understood by readers and decision-makers," says Jon Catton, a Bozeman, Mont.-based conservationist who has worked on the snowmobile issue since the 2000 EIS.

However, Catton points out, much of the research supporting a snowcoach-only approach does appear in the document.

"It's in there, and it's clear. It's just that the politics have pushed it off the front page and into the margins," Catton says.

There are three main issues around which the snowmobile debate orbits: impacts on air quality, noise and wildlife.

In past studies the Park Service took pains to document the effects of winter recreation on wildlife. Citing 10 different studies, the SEIS concluded that, "Harassment of wildlife during this sensitive time can have a negative effect on individual animals and ... populations as a whole."

The study found that animals that do not appear to be stressed by an encounter with an over-snow vehicle (OSV) might still be suffering unseen affects ranging from elevated heart rate to increased susceptibility to predation. For their part, snowmobile advocates point to federal wildlife monitoring studies that took place from 2002 to 2006 as evidence that bison and elk aren't bothered by OSVs.

Those studies relied on visual observation of wildlife responses to human encounters, and generally concluded that the majority of animals in the park weren't bothered by OSVs.

Johnson also cites a 2002 study by independent researchers that found that skiers and snowshoers cause more stress on bison and elk than do snowmobiles because they often surprise herds in areas of the park where the elk and bison don't expect to encounter humans.

"So you have to take all of the studies together, you can't look at one or another and come to some conclusion," Johnson says.

But the 2003 SEIS found that although motorized winter recreation in the park hasn't clearly demonstrated any long-term consequences to wildlife populations, "park policies, regulations and [executive orders] clearly state that disturbance of wildlife, regardless of population-level effects, is unacceptable in the national parks."

Last September researchers released a draft of their latest wildlife study. Their recommendation was to, "continue to conduct winter recreational activities ... with OSV traffic levels at or below those observed during the last three years of our study."

The agency's preferred alternative calls for allowing nearly three times the number of snowmobiles that have been in the park, on average, over the last three years.

Critics say snowmobile impacts on noise and air quality are even more egregious than impacts on wildlife. Snowmobile noise has exceeded Yellowstone's standards in three consecutive winters, even though the number of snowmobiles has averaged a third less than allowed in. Park Service monitoring at Old Faithful found snowmobile noise audible between 60 and 80 percent of the time during the peak hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Park Service policy 1.4.3 states, in part, that, "NPS managers must always seek ways to avoid, or to minimize to the greatest extent practicable, adverse impacts on park resources and values."

Critics say the snowcoach-only alternative clearly meets that mandate, by drastically reducing the number of OSVs in the park. But Yellowstone officials maintain that allowing use of BAT snowmobiles better balances the desired conditions of the park with historic recreational uses.

"I think it's important to harken back to the basic mission, which is to provide for visitor use and enjoyment and to protect resources. Any decision we make attempts to find out how we can achieve both," Sacklin says. "As we look at the range of alternatives and consider the range of experience to visitors, while at the same time addressing historic issues in Yellowstone National Park, we're comfortable that the preferred direction that we've identified not only effectively addresses historic concerns and effectively addresses resources, but also provides for a range of experiences."

Randy Roberson, who made a living renting snowmobiles for 25 years, doesn't like to talk about Yellowstone snowmobiling's dirty past. He'd rather focus on what he believes is the future of winter use in the park, and the new beginning for the community he's called home his entire life: snowcoaches.

"A much more diverse clientele is calling on us to book snowcoach trips into Yellowstone," Roberson says. "People of all ages and abilities are discovering that they can still see the world's largest concentration of geysers, mud pots and steam vents ... and they can do it from the comfort of a heated coach."

Roberson once thought his business would go up like the smoke of his two-stroke snowmobile fleet. Faced with an uncertain future, he switched over from snowmobile rentals in the park to offering snowcoach tours exclusively. Now his distinct yellow fleet of over-the-snow busses sets the standard for snowcoach travel.

Snowmobiling remains a critical component of West Yellowstone's economy, but it's no longer the only draw to this gateway town. When Marysue Costello took over as head of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce in 1999, the town still billed itself as "the snowmobile capital of the world." Now Costello touts this slogan: "West Yellowstone is where winter comes to play." She says what the community and business owners want more than anything is a sense of certainty so they can start planning and marketing for the future. And while she says the majority of the community wants to see snowmobiling in the park preserved, she's also confident that West Yellowstone will adjust and move forward either way.

"The health of Yellowstone is why we're all here," she says.

What's at stake for Yellowstone's future--and the future of the national parks system--is of serious concern to people on all sides of this philosophical and economic debate. No one is advocating a return to the days of choking smog and overcrowding in the park. But the improvements, conservationists say, are directly tied to the decline of snowmobiling.

Now it's a question of whether the Park Service will take additional steps down the path of improving the health of the park, or whether the agency, under Kempthorne's leadership, or under the thumb of Kempthorne's boss, will ignore his promise and reverse a healthy transition away from snowmobiles that's already well underway.

The public has until May 31 to comment on DEIS. The DEIS and an electronic form to submit comments can be found at http://parkplanning.nps.gov. Submit written comments to: Winter Use Planning Team, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190. Public comments will be accepted until May 31, 2007.

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