Lewis: Plans for winter season remain elusive

The current winter plan for Yellowstone National Park calls for Old Faithful Snow Lodge to be closed unless some sort of legal approval for snowcoaches and snowmobiles can be found, according to park officials.

In a question-and-answer session with Cody business owners yesterday, Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis admitted no solution had emerged to counteract a legal decision from U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, the D.C.-area jurist who rejected the 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 and Grand Teton National Park. With the plan scrapped and a 2004 plan — which doesn’t allow for motorized vehicles in the Park, Sullivan effectively shut down the Old Faithful area to access from the outside, since it’s served solely by snow coaches and snowmobiles in the winter season, which begins Dec. 15.

Lewis was dealt a bad hand by Sullivan, as there aren’t many options available to her and Park officials to solve the issue with a temporary plan. She and other National Park Service officials lack the opportunity to counteract the winter plan via memo or administrative action: no matter what number of vehicles admitted in the Park, such a move would be immediately challenged in court by one side or the other. Attaching a temporary plan to a bill in Congress appears to have little support, especially with attention focused on the U.S. credit crisis. An emergency appeal is also possible. Today, Wyoming’s congressional delegation petitioned the Department of the Interior to enact an interim plan allowing snowmobiles and snowcoaches in the Park this winter.

But there is some legal question as to whether Lewis could issue some temporary guideline allowing up to 263 snowmobiles and snow coaches in the Park daily during the winter season, according to Amy McNamara, national parks program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Her group helped bring about the court challenge to the previous winter-use plan, and she argues Lewis does indeed have the power to fix the issue via the Administrative Procedure Act.

“Our feeling is she should put something in place as quickly as possible so the public and surrounding communities have a sense of what’s happening this winter,” McNamara told the Billings Gazette. Park officials disagree with McNamara’s interpretation of the act; hence their reluctance to act.

“Any administrative process we put through will still be subject to litigation, so it isn’t a panacea,” Lewis said.

Yet, anyway. Xanterra officials are proceeding as normal in winter preparations, preparing Old Faithful Snow Lodge for an influx of visitors. Reservations are being taken for rooms at Old Faithful Snow Lodge, along with spots on snowcoaches. Xanterra may be the biggest loser if there’s no winter season at Old Faithful, but officials there act like nothing will be different this winter — and they may know something we don’t.

So, the solution is elusive, to say the least. Lewis told the business crowd closing down Old Faithful Snow Lodge is a very real option. That doesn’t mean Yellowstone won’t accessible in the winter season: Mammoth Hot Springs is accessible all year long, as the road between Gardiner and Cooke City is plowed all winter.

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