A newly released winter use plan for Yellowstone National Park may finally strike a lasting balance between environmental concerns and tourism interests in the long-running dispute over snowmobiles in the park.
Conservation groups and gateway community businesses are offering qualified support for the plan, which Superintendent Dan Wenk discussed Friday in West Yellowstone. Wenk said the plan was "first and foremost about protecting park values" and that it "has real and direct benefits to park visitors."
The final plan closely mirrors a draft version released last year. It will manage snowmobile and snow coach traffic by allowing up to 110 so-called "transportation events" each day. On average, that will mean daily limits of approximately 50 groups of around seven snowmobiles each and a total of 60 snow coaches entering one at a time. Travel over Sylvan Pass will continue under existing guidelines.
A new pilot program will let one noncommercial guide take up to four guests daily through each gate. Details of that program will be worked out later, but guides must pass an online course and will use a government website to reserve entry dates based on a lottery system, Wenk said.
Wenk said the plan "will make the park quieter and cleaner" and that "the quality of the visitor experience will continue to be excellent."
Both sides optimistic
While the plan sets snowmobile limits that are lower than those of a decade ago, it still provides reasonable opportunities for winter tourism, said Scott Balyo, head of the Chamber of Commerce for Cody, Wyo., at the park's eastern boundary.
Balyo said he was pleased that Sylvan Pass will remain open, as well as with the provision for noncommercial guides.
"Just the fact that people are going to have that opportunity should increase traffic, so we're excited about that," Balyo said.
A coalition of environmental groups struck a cautionary but accepting tone in a joint statement released Friday, saying that recent clarifications offered by Wenk have allayed some of their concerns.
Mark Pearson, conservation program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said his group will ask for a few changes to the plan, such as earlier deadlines for tighter noise and emissions standards. But overall, the plan "seems to be headed in a direction that I think will ultimately satisfy most of the concerns of most people," he said.
Bert Miller, vice president of the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association, said he would like to see a few more privately guided trips allowed each day, but he was optimistic the plan will work.
"It looks very promising, and we feel this is a really good place to start," he said.
Under the current interim plan, which will continue for the 2013-14 season, up to 318 snowmobiles may enter the park daily. By 2017, sleds must meet new sound and pollution limits, allowing for a single-day total of 342, while producing less fumes and noise. Seasonal daily snowmobile averages, though, must be below that mark.
The cost, risk and environmental effects of using a howitzer cannon to blast snow from avalanche-prone Sylvan Pass remains a concern for some environmentalists.
Pearson said there were lingering questions about using explosives for what he called a "discretionary recreational activity that only benefits a handful of people each winter."
Wenk said he struggled with the issue, but his staff had assured him that the pass is managed safely. Though he would "love to find a way to manage the pass without using a howitzer," Wenk said the cannon was still needed to clear the pass each spring, regardless of winter use.
How the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides to proceed with a plan to list the wolverine as an endangered species could potentially play a role in travel over 8,425-foot Sylvan Pass. The animal makes its den in deep snow above 8,000 feet, and Yellowstone remains one of the last areas in the contiguous U.S. where wolverines are found.
Wenk said he was taking a "wait-and-see attitude" to what the wolverine delisting might mean, and that because the winter-use plan follows an adaptive-management approach, aspects of it could change as circumstances warrant.