The first thing to know about the Yellowstone winter use decision signed last week by the regional National Park Service director is that nothing changes this winter.

That measure of certainty is important for park area businesses, tourists and park staff.

The rest of the plan includes:

Greater flexibility for snowmobile and snowcoach operators, starting in the 2014-2015 winter season. Instead of an absolute limit on how many snowmobiles or snow coaches enter the park, the plan limits the number of groups of snowmobiles and allows for larger numbers some days if a seasonal average limit is maintained.

Incentives for tour operators to upgrade their vehicles to the latest standards for emissions and noise controls as early as the 2014-2015 season. All snowcoaches and snowmobiles entering Yellowstone will have to meet cleaner, quieter standards by 2016-2017.

“This winter use plan is the product of hundreds of hours of public involvement, is based on sound science, and is a different approach to winter use management,” Superintendent Dan Wenk said.

According to the Record of Decision signed by NPS regional director John Wessels, when the plan is fully implemented in 2016-2017, there could be a maximum of 480 snowmobiles in the park on a single day, which is more than have been allowed in recent years under short-term rules. However, because those machines as well as snowcoaches will emit lower levels of hydrocarbons and fewer decibels, their affect on park air and sound will be less.

All snowmobile groups will have a guide, but the plan allows for a small number of noncommercially guided tours. A person on those tours would have to complete a guiding course.

Although the debate over winter use is about snowmobiles, the plan covers nonmotorized use as well. It says about 35 miles of road will continue to be groomed for cross-country skiing.

‘Transportation events’

NPS made some changes in the final rule after receiving public comment on the environmental impact statement earlier this year. But the plan retains the basic approach from the EIS.

“Wildlife, natural soundscapes and park visitors are affected primarily by groups of vehicles (what NPS has termed “transportation events”), rather than individual vehicles within a discrete group,” the decision says.

“By grouping over snow vehicles into discrete transportation events and limiting the maximum number of transportation events allowed each day in the park, the NPS will be able to minimize impacts to wildlife and increase the time that natural sounds predominate in the wintertime landscape.”

The plan also “allows for a variety of visitor experiences.”

Decades of litigation

After more than a 15 years of working on a series of winter plans stemming from lawsuits and responding to lawsuits over those plans, NPS may have finally struck a balance that allows snowmobilers to ride while protecting the park’s winter air quality and quiet.

The decision isn’t exactly what any of the winter use litigants wanted, but it gives everyone something. The plan respects conflicting interests while upholding the park’s mandate to preserve natural resources and provide for the people’s enjoyment. The winter use plan of 2013 is a major accomplishment for NPS and a welcome development for those of us who treasure Yellowstone.

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