Yellowstone in Winter, Bombardier, snowcoach

Mead: Don’t Limit Sleds in Yellowstone

In a letter sent yesterday to Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, Mead argues a lower daily limit of snowmobiles in the Park would hurt tourism efforts in communities adjacent to the Park. One of Wenk’s current projects is to determine a new Winter Use Plan for the Park; the draft calls for a variable-use plan that would fluctuate between 110 and 330 guided snowmobile visitors daily. It would also require visitors enter the Park in the morning and extend the current laws requiring cleaner four-stroke engines on the sleds.

Overall, 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.

Mead’s letter, while admirably in its defense of local communities impacted by the proposed changes in the Winter Use Plan, is more political than practical. As noted, actual usage of snowmobiles in the Park is far below the limits, so the limits have actually been irrelevent: Wenk could set a daily limit of a million snowmobiles daily and we suspect it wouldn’t really increase the number of sleds in the Park, mainly because of one huge factor: the snowmobile industry is in 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. In general, the winter-sports industry is in the midst of a shift from snowmobiles to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and 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); many believe the future lies with the active-sport demographic.

So all these calls for more snowmobiles in the Park may play well to some constituencies, but they don’t address the basic issue confronting the vendors servicing Yellowstone in the winter season: More and more visitors come for an active experience, not a passive one on the back of a snowmobile. That’s not much consolation to the resort owners investing a lot of money in sleds, admittedly, but maybe it will cause some of the hotels and resorts to figure out that putting together a Yellowstone/resort travel package should pay more than lip service to skiiers and snowshoers. To their credit, Xanterra has figured this out; others should follow.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

RELATED STORIES: Barasso Urges Changes in Yellowstone Winter-Use Plan; 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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