Yellowstone in Winter, Bombardier, snowcoach

NPS Passes on New Yellowstone Winter Use Plan; Will Extend Old Plan by One Year

This means that last winter’s limit of 318 commercially guided lower-emission snowmobiles and 78 commercially guided snowcoaches per day will remain in place. In addition, the NPS will stick with its policy of keeping the East Entrance and Sylvan Pass open via the use of howitzers to prevent avalanches.

The proposed Winter Use Plan would have imposed variable daily limits based on demand and overall usage numbers. 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 would do so by 10:30 a.m. each day.

Overall, the proposed numbers represented 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. These limits were somewhat misleading; they were not reached last winter, as the peak day was 298 sleds. Winter in Yellowstone is transitioning from a snowmobile-based experience to a winter-sports experience: 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. People just do not buy snowmobiles the way they once did: Forty years ago a half-million snowmobiles were sold in the United States, but last year only 51,796 snowmobiles were sold in the United States, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association. Crafting a Winter Use Plan on the proposition that snowmobiling is going to rebound in coming years is wishful thinking with no basis in reality, demographics or lifestyle trends.

But change comes slowly to Yellowstone; there are lot of tour operators and resorts who are heavily invested in a snowmobiling demographic and have a hard time letting it go. Though it didn’t gain much attention outside of the general area, the proposed Winter Use Plan engendered a lot of passion in the greater Yellowstone area, as more than 58,000 responses were received during the 60-day public comment period on the draft plan. Wyoming politicians were lining up to oppose the plan, saying the daily limits were too low and the requirement for sleds to be commercially guided unfairly penalized locals. On the flip side, there were plenty of locals seeking to limit the daily number of snowmobilers even more and open the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful to car traffic.

This winter the NPS will further research the following parts of the Winter Use Plan:

•     Variable preset use limits. This is the hardest for local businesses to wrap their arms around, and with good reason. While it might be good science to have variable limits, it’s bad policy.
•     Air quality and sound modeling assumptions. We are afraid there will be some revisionist history at play here. We remember the days when the West Entrance and the Old Faithful area would be smothered by exhaust from two-stroke snowmobiles. Visiting Yellowstone in winter was a nasty affair.
•     Proposed Best Available Technology (BAT) for snowcoaches. This would require some hefty financial investments by local businesses and Park concessionaire Xanterra.
•     Adaptive management framework for emerging technologies.
•     Costs of avalanche mitigation efforts on Sylvan Pass. Accounting for the costs is simple; arguing it’s too expensive to Wyoming politicians and Cody business owners is not. That money would be better spent plowing the highway between Cooke City and the Chief Joseph Highway. It would increase public safety and give Cody residents a safer and easier way into Yellowstone.
•     The 10:30 entry time requirement included in the preferred alternative.
•     Opportunities for non-commercially guided access. Again, we’re guessing this is being done for political reasons. Older Park Rangers speak of the “Wild West” days during Yellowstone winters, when snowmobilers would pretty much run roughshod offtrail because there was little chance of being caught. Yeah, it’s too bad that some bad apples did spoil it for everyone, but arguing that everyone on a snowmobile is pure and would never, ever go offtrail is a weak and dishonest argument.

With this delay, the NPS plans to issue a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and Record of Decision (ROD) that will select only the “transition year” portion of the preferred alternative.  In addition, the NPS will issue a final rule — allowing winter use for one year — allowing the same use levels with the same restrictions as the interim rule that was in place the past two seasons.

Following the issuance of the ROD and one-year rule, the NPS will immediately begin work to supplement the FEIS. The NPS intends to have a final supplemental EIS, a long-term ROD, and a long-term regulation in place before the start of the 2012-2013 winter season.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

RELATED STORIES: Mead: Don’t Limit Sleds in Yellowstone; Barasso Urges Changes in Yellowstone Winter-Use Plan; Cooke City/Chief Joseph Hwy. Plowing Discussions Bring Passion, No Facts; 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; Cooke City Plowing Could Boost Yellowstone Wintertime Access; Debate Over Winter Use Plan Basically Over: Snowmobile Lobby is Winner


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