CODY, Wyo. — Gary Fales Outfitting began running guided snowmobile trips through the East Entrance into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
Over the last 15 years, however, the Wapiti Valley outfitter has struggled through Yellowstone's oft-changing regulations, watching the days of unlimited riders give way to current rules that limit guided snowmobile trips to 318 a day for the entire park.
Dede Fales, part-owner of Gary Fales Outfitting, said Yellowstone's changing rules make it difficult to run the family's business.
While they ran 13 machines last year, she said, they're down to four this year. And, as Yellowstone prepares to release its draft environmental impact study exploring new winter-use rules, she said, the future is as uncertain as ever.
“We would run more machines and do more advertising if we had a long-term permit with the park,” Fales said. “But who can go spend $100,000 on 10 new machines when they don't know what the future holds?”
Fales may have an ally in Park County, where commissioners joined the state of Wyoming in an attempt to sue the federal government over Yellowstone's snowmobile limits.
The lawsuit argued that Yellowstone's limit on snowmobile trips would hurt the county's tax base and its efforts to bolster winter tourism. A judge, however, blocked them from suing, saying their claim was merely hypothetical.
Park County and the state of Wyoming are now appealing that ruling. Commissioner Tim French has said that the snowmobile limits affect the county's “socio-economics” and that the county is “tied to the hip” with how Yellowstone Park is managed.
Park County commissioners couldn't be reached by press time on Monday.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said he understands the concerns expressed by Park County officials and operators like Gary Fales Outfitting.
“It's challenging to have a viable business of any sort — at any time of year — in this area and especially in this economy,” Nash said. “I understand when people share their concerns about any action that might impact their ability to run a viable business.”
Yet, Nash also cited figures showing that, since 2008, the average number of snowmobile trips into Yellowstone hasn't approached the park's daily limit of 318.
On average, Yellowstone recorded 294 guided snowmobile trips a day during the winter of 2007, or 24 fewer than what's now permitted.
By 2008, the numbers had fallen to an average of 205 guided trips daily, and just 187 during the winter of 2009.
Nash said figures aren't yet available for the 2010 winter season. But, in December, park figures showed that the number of people entering Yellowstone on guided snowmobiles was down 3.6 percent from December 2009.
“We're not approaching 318 daily snowmobile trips because we don't have guides at the entrances that have that much in equipment,” Nash said.
“The number 318 is based on — among other things — up to 20 snowmobiles a day coming through the East Entrance. We have one operator at the East Entrance (Gary Fales Outfitting), and he doesn't have that many machines.”
Mark Pearson, program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, also has watched the numbers play out over the past few years. He thinks the decline in daily snowmobile riders represents consumer choice.
Pearson cited Yellowstone figures showing that snowcoach trips increased from 29 in 2008 to 32 in 2009. In December 2010, when snowmobile ridership decreased, the number of snowcoach passengers increased another 5.7 percent.
“As more people become aware of the snowcoach option, they're choosing to go in that way,” Pearson said. “All they want is a form of reliable transportation to Old Faithful.”
Pearson said he understands Park County's lawsuit and its subsequent appeal, though he called it a waste of taxpayer money.
The new Yellowstone EIS will be released by spring, long before the county's appeal concludes in court, he said.
“They (Park County) don't like being told that they don't have standing to file lawsuits for winter use,” Pearson said.
“They've spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' dollars on this. It's silly to sue over something that will be decided before the lawsuit is settled.”
The National Park Service plans to release its draft winter-use plan by late winter or early spring, with implementation intended for 2012-13 under all alternatives proposed except one. Under the no-action alternative, all over-the-snow vehicle travel would be banned.
Pearson said the Greater Yellowstone Coalition will participate in the public hearings once the draft is released for public review.
“We'll continue to advocate for the original decision from almost 10 years ago that would phase out snowmobiles in favor of snowcoaches as the only form of oversnow access into the park,” Pearson said.
“It further limits the environmental impacts to the park. You have one vehicle with 10 people in it as opposed to 10 vehicles with one person on it.”
Fales said they, too, will participate in the process, advocating for the opposite plan.
“We would like to see people be able to go into the park on their own again,” Fales said. “We would always advocate for more winter use than there is.”
Contact Martin Kidston at 307-527-7250 or firstname.lastname@example.org