It’s a subject that inspired a whole lot of passion in the Yellowstone area: how to handle access to Yellowstone in winter. In recent decades Yellowstone has been the province of the snowmobiler, mostly by default. Not the best of situations for the Park itself: sleds are dirty modes of transport (it wasn’t that long ago that both the West Entrance and the Old Faithful area were plagued by a seemingly permanent haze of exhaust generated by sleds in wintertime), and unsupervised sledders had a tendency to go offtrail far too often.
The current Winter Use Plan — the one in place the past few years — was a direct response to these problems, and the proposed new Winter Use Plan addresses these issues more explicitly. It would, overall, decrease the number of snowmobiles allowed i the Park over the course of the winter season but doing it on a variable basis, allowing in more sleds on high-demand periods. It also mandates the use of cleaner four-stroke sleds and guides, both of which drive up the cost of snowmobiling in the Park, and sets a 10:30 a.m. deadline for entering the Park.
Local tourism and political officials weren’t pleased after a meeting in Idaho Falls with Park officials to review the plan.
“The park listened, but I don’t know if they heard us,” Joe Skinner, a Gallatin County commissioner, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “We’re all concerned about the economy of the gateway communities…We really feel this new plan could put some operators out of business.”
“In West Yellowstone, we’re real survivors. We’ve adapted,” said Clyde Seely, the owner of the Three Bear Lodge and See Yellowstone Tours. “But there are some businesses that have had to close up in the wintertime because there’s not enough people. That’s devastating to them.”
On the flip side, some environmentalists want to see snowmobiles completely eliminated from the mix because of their potential impact (noise, emissions) on wildlife. Their wishes weren’t granted, either.
And there’s a third constituency: those who want to see the Old Faithful area opened to car traffic. Their wishes weren’t granted, either.
In the end, the debate over the Winter Use Plan really is a battle of two visions: recapturing the past versus laying the basis for the future in response to changing demographics in the United States. In general, snowmobile usage is in a serious decline: Forty years ago a half-million snowmobiles were sold in the United States, but last year only 48,599 snowmobiles were sold in the United States, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association. There are some signs of life in the snowmobile industry — in reporting a loss last week, Arctic Cat officials said snowmobile sales were up the last quarter — but absolutely no one expects a return to the glory days of the industry.
Which is why the resort managers expecting a flood of snowmobilers someday are misguided: it’s just not going to happen. In the last winter season there were more snowcoach passengers entering the Park than snowmobile riders for the first time in recent Yellowstone National Park history (albeit by a very slim margin) and the future lies with the active-sport demographic. Seely talks of West Yellowstone businesses adapting to the future, but we don’t see much evidence of that actually happening: Seely’s own lodge emphasizes snowmobiling as a winter activity with no mention of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. We know change is hard, but a Winter Use Plan shouldn’t be a full employment plan for operators who refuse to change with the times. Skiing and snowshoeing in Yellowstone National Park is one of the more spectacular experiences on the planet, and choosing to serve the growing demographic of active-sport winter enthusiasts — as opposed to the shrinking number of snowmobilers — just makes business sense for all.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.