Antelope Fire

Debate Over Winter Use Plan Basically Over: Snowmobile Lobby is Winner

Really, any further discussion is meaningless; none of the scenarios involve allowing people to directly drive into the Park from West Yellowstone or Mammoth, past the current access through the Lamar Valley. It’s clear the only thing under debate is how many snowmobiles to allow in the Park daily, not whether to limit access at all in favor of autos.

That’s a shame: NPS officials have a chance to provide a bold new plan for winter access that would make it affordable for the average American to see the wonders of the Park in wintertime. But given the high price of renting a sled or taking a snowcoach trip (visiting the Old Faithful area for a single night will run you over $400 at a bare minimum), not giving an option for day visits via car is downright criminal. The Park Service is supposed to be dedicated to access for all; a winter visit to Old Faithful or Canyon in winter is access for those with a hefty bank account.

Here’s a look at the six proposals; our comments are in italic.

ALTERNATIVE 1: No Action—No Snowmobile/Snowcoach Use. The current interim rule for winter use would expire after the 2010/2011 winter season. After that, no public use of over-snow vehicles (OSV) would be permitted in Yellowstone. Only non-motorized winter access into the park (on foot, ski, and snowshoe) would continue. No one in the known universe takes this proposal seriously. Ain’t gonna happen.

ALTERNATIVE 2: Continue Snowmobile/Snowcoach Use at 2008 Plan Limits. Winter access to the park via snowmobiles and snowcoaches would continue under present limits: up to 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day. All current OSV requirements would continue, including entry only with OSV guides, restrictions on hours of operation, and only snowmobiles that meet “Best Available Technology” (BAT) requirements. BAT also would be developed and implemented for snowcoaches by the 2014/2015 season. This is the plan most likely to succeed. Snowmobile groups may squawk, but since the daily limit has been very rarely reached in recent years, their objections are symbolic until the snowmobile industry rebounds.

ALTERNATIVE 3: Return Snowmobile/Snowcoach Use to 2004 Plan Limits. Snowmobile and snowcoach use levels would be allowed to increase to the levels set in the 2004 plan – up to 720 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day. All current OSV requirements would continue, the same as under alternative 2, above, including development and implementation of BAT for snowcoaches by the 2014/2015 season. This plan could also pass, but the differences between it and #3 in real-world terms is meaningless. Fewer people are snowmobiling, and snowmobile usage in the Park has been seriously declining in recent years.

ALTERNATIVE 4: Mixed-Use: Snowcoaches, Snowmobiles, and Wheeled Vehicles (Road Plowing). Visitors could enter Yellowstone in the winter by multiple motorized methods. The roads from West Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful would be plowed for park access in wheeled, commercial, multi-passenger vehicles (buses and vans). The south entrance road would be groomed for use by up to 30 snowcoaches and 100 snowmobiles per day, all required to be BAT. The east entrance road over Sylvan Pass would be closed to OSV use. Nonmotorized winter access would continue. Many have called for full plowing to allow cars to drive in to Old Faithful. Notice that this plan would not allow autos in and would limit usage to buses and vans. For the average person, what’s the difference between paying Xanterra $60 for transport via Bombadier or bus? None: it’s still $60. This is a meaningless proposal that purports to change more than it does.

ALTERNATIVE 5: Transition to BAT Snowcoaches Only. Motorized access to the park would be in BAT snowcoaches only. Snowmobiles would gradually be phased out, beginning in the 2014/2015 season, when all snowcoaches would be required to meet BAT standards. Snowcoaches would replace snowmobiles within a five-year period (depending on snowcoach user demand). This alternative initially provides for both snowmobile and snowcoach access under present levels – 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day. After the 2014/2015 season, snowcoach numbers would be allowed to increase to 120 per day, with a corresponding decrease in the number of snowmobiles during the five-year phase-out period. Again, probably won’t happen.

ALTERNATIVE 6: Implement Variable Management. OSV and visitor use would be managed for a greater variety of winter experiences by setting times and places for higher and lower levels of use, including additional opportunities for undisturbed skiing and snowshoeing. OSV entries into Yellowstone would have a winter season limit of up to 32,000 snowmobiles and 4,600 snowcoaches, and a daily limit of up to 540 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches. Up to 25 percent of snowmobile entries would be available for unguided use. It’s hard to react because, of course, you don’t know what the weather will bring. For a good chunk of last winter the cross-country skiing at Old Faithful was crap; setting aside time so people can eschew a crappy experience doesn’t make sense. This plan might have some merit (except for the unguided entries; there’s a reason why guides were imposed in the first place), but some more specifics would need to be listed.

If it sounds like we’re a little down on all six proposals, we are. Access to Yellowstone National Park in winter shouldn’t be limited to only those with the economic means to rent a sled, buy transport and spend $200+ a night at Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Winter is such a wonderful time in the Park, especially in the Old Faithful area, and eliminating the possibility of affordable daily visits (especially when families are involved) so early in the process is very disappointing.

Yes, we know there are issues with allowing cars to the Old Faithful area; the road between West and Old Faithful is heavily used by bison and elk in wintertime, and the NPS may not feel it has the infrastructure to handle autos (service, parking, etc.). But these logistical challenges are the same as experienced in keeping the road between Mammoth and Cooke City open all winter. If the National Park Service is seriously dead-set against preventing cars access to Old Faithful in winter, then add a provision to whatever Winter Use Plan is implemented mandating cheap access. Instead of letting Xanterra getting away with $120 round-trip tariffs between West and Old Faithful, demand that any bus line running on plowed roads do so at affordable prices: $20 or less round trip for adults, free for kids. Accessing the Old Faithful area in wintertime should not be dependent on your ability to pay, and so far we’re not seeing that spirit whatsoever in any of the Winter Use Plan proposals.

This article first appeared in the free weekly Yellowstone Insider newsletter. Are you a subscriber? More details here.

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