It could be a very quiet winter in Yellowstone National Park

With a federal judge throwing out the latest winter use plan for Yellowstone National Park, one big question looms for potential visitors: How should they proceed with a potential winter sojourn?

No one seems to know, including the National Park Service. In fact, under current guidelines, no snowmobiles or snowcoaches will be allowed inside the Park this winter. Here’s the key paragraph from a press release issued Friday by the Park Service:

“A 2004 rule originally implemented to support a temporary three year winter use plan remains valid and is the rule which currently governs oversnow motorized travel in the parks. Under that rule, the authority to operate snowmobiles and snowcoaches in the parks expired at the end of the 2006-2007 winter season. Unless some change occurs, neither snowmobiles nor snowcoaches will be allowed in Yellowstone or Grand Teton this winter.”

That, of course, is a stunner: without any way to get in, there will be no winter visitors to Old Faithful Snow Lodge and the greater Old Faithful area. (The Mammoth Hot Springs area is accessible via automobile.) And given the recent rise in popularity of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the Old Faithful area, a prime Now, there are absolutists who would rather see Yellowstone untouched by human during the winter months; similarly, there are those who yearn for the old days of two-stroke snowmobiles and access unfettered by mandatory guides.

The uncertainty was caused by a decision handed down last week by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who rejected the new winter-use plan (which would have raised limits on four-stroke snowmobiles to 540 per day) because it was at odds with findings by NPS staff that the higher limits would negatively impact wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. He wrote:

“According to the NPS’s own data, the [winter-use plan] will increase air pollution, exceed the use levels recommended by NPS biologists to protect wildlife, and cause major adverse impacts to the natural soundscape in Yellowstone, Despite this, NPS found that the plan’s impacts are wholly ‘acceptable,’ and utterly fails to explain this incongruous conclusion.”

Whatever happens had better happen soon. We’re now less than 90 days away from the start of Yellowstone’s winter season, and Park officials say they’re working with U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Justice lawyers to come up with a game plan for the winter. Presumably there will be some sort of emergency rules that basically conform to guidelines set forth in the previous 2004 rules. And, in theory, a federal judge in Cheyenne could make some sort of ruling that could clarify — or muddy — the situation.

In the meantime, you should be careful about making any reservations. The rules concerning reservations during winter months are considerably more restrictive than during the summer: reservations must be cancelled 14 days in advance during the winter months to receive a refund. Presumably concessionaire Xanterra will waive this should snowcoaches and snowmobiles not be allowed back to Old Faithful Snow Lodge during the winter season, but you should be warned.

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