Yellowstone in Winter, Bombardier, snowcoach

Barrasso Urges Changes in Yellowstone Winter Use Plan

The proposed Winter Use Plan would introduce demand-based variable limits for Park access via snowcoach and snowmobile. On days when snowmobile and snowcoach usage is heaviest in the Park (say, around the Christmas holidays), the limits for snowmobile and snowcoach usage could rise to 330 snowmobiles and 80 snowcoaches, which are more than the existing daily limits. There’s a price to pay for that, though: to make up for the overage, the daily limit could drop to as few as 110 snowmobiles. All vehicles entering the park do so by 10:30 a.m. each day.

Overall, though, the new numbers would represent a decrease in the number of snowmobiles and snowcoaches allowed in the Park: a daily average of 254 snowmobiles and 63 snowcoaches would be allowed during the 90-day winter season, down from the previous limit of 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day.

Those numbers, on average, are actually higher than the average daily visitation in the past winter season: 194 snowmobiles per day, with a peak-day number of 289.

But there’s the issue: in many ways the daily limits are meaningless and rarely enforced because of a lack of demand; they were rarely reached the past two years. Barrasso’s letter to Superintendent Dan Wenk is pretty clear that he thinks higher daily limits will lead to more snowmobilers visiting the Park.

“The Park Service’s preferred management plan for winter use activities would dramatically reduce public access,” Barrasso said in his letter, as covered by the Missoulian. “Under your preferred alternative, half of the days in the winter season would see a decrease, causing a sizeable reduction in the number of individuals into Yellowstone during the winter season.

“This proposal will limit the public’s ability to access the park and undercut the businesses and communities that rely on tourism and recreation activities.”

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 quarter, 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 and politicians 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 many believe the future lies with the active-sport demographic.

Barrasso’s letter touches on a sensitive issue that’s become a rallying cry for locals: the requirement that a licensed guide accompany snowmobilers, thus driving up the cost of access. It’s a valid criticism, but it’s the only way to address a very key concern for National Park Service officials: without responsible guides, there will a reversion to the Wild West atmosphere that existed in the old days, when snowmobilers felt pretty free to head off the main trails because they knew there was virtually no chance they’d be caught. Yes, the snowmobilers who don’t abuse privileges are perhaps unfairly hampered by the need for guides — but the rules are imposed for those who break the rules. And history teaches us the rules would indeed be broken with impunity without guides.

Comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS) for the park’s winter use plan ends Monday; public comment in general ends Sept. 6.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

RELATED STORIES: Yellowstone Winter Use Plan Now Open for Public Comment; Early Reaction to Proposed Yellowstone Winter-Use Plan: Mixed; NPS Unveils Draft Winter Use Plan for Yellowstone with Variable Daily Limits; Debate Over Winter Use Plan Basically Over: Snowmobile Lobby is Winner


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