Calling Yellowstone National Park’s latest plan for winter use complicated, Superintendent Dan Wenk nevertheless said the proposal allows for expanded visitation while meeting air quality, noise and wildlife protection standards.
“This isn’t simple, but we think it will work,” Wenk told the media on a conference call Thursday.
“All around when I first read this, I was very pleased,” said Clyde Seely, longtime West Yellowstone snowmobile concession operator. “This is the most reasonable approach we have ever been presented with.”
Wenk acknowledged that the issue of winter use in Yellowstone is controversial, pointing out that the latest Winter Use Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is the seventh such document in the past 12 years and the fifth EIS. District courts have vacated the park’s work three times.
Wenk said he is hoping that this time the agency has the right mix to allow enactment while taking a “fundamentally different” approach, and that the park’s actions are legally defensible.
“It looks like they’re tying their events more to science, which I think is OK,” said snowcoach operator Randy Roberson of West Yellowstone.
West Yellowstone is the most popular winter entrance to the park. Roberson said he is still “digesting” the report, which was formally released to the public Friday.
The proposal moves away from previous rules that limited the number of daily users. It allows more flexibility by managing for what the park calls “transportation events.”
Yellowstone would allow up to 110 transportation events a day, initially defined as either one snowcoach or a group of snowmobilers. Snowmobile groups in the past have averaged about seven riders and would be capped at 10. No more than 50 transportation events a day would be allocated to snowmobiles.
If operators can meet stricter environmental standards for snowcoaches and snowmobiles, more could be allowed. The average size of snowmobile groups could increase from seven to eight, and snowcoaches could grow to two per event.
The latest alternative favored by the park also allows for one entry a day per entrance for a noncommercially guided group of up to five snowmobiles. The snowmobilers must ride machines that meet the park’s standards and must take a yet-to-be-developed training program.
Wenk said using guides has improved safety in the park, but that the agency sees no difference between commercial and noncommercial guides who meet training requirements.
Seely said he thought the park was starting too small with its noncommercial groups, but he hopes it can be expanded.
“That’s maybe a little bone to throw out to the public,” he said. “In the past, that has not been there at all.”
Over the hill
The latest proposal would continue to allow motorized travel over Sylvan Pass from Cody, Wyo., through the park’s East Entrance.
The issue has been controversial because fewer people use the route and because of the cost of keeping the pass open, which includes avalanche mitigation using explosives. The park has previously recommended that the route be closed because of the danger of avalanches and the cost. But Wyoming and Cody tourism advocates have pushed to keep it open. Wenk said he was not pressured by those outside entities, or by Department of Interior superiors, to keep the pass open.
Park officials reassessed the cost of keeping the pass open, dropping it from $325,000 to $125,000. Wenk said the new number more accurately assesses the cost for just keeping the pass open, noting that staff would be at the gate monitoring nonmotorized entrance to the park even if the pass weren’t open.
Last year, only 110 people used Sylvan Pass in the winter, accounting for a cost of $1,136 per person. But Wenk said it costs $2.5 million to keep the entire park open in the winter for only 100,000 visitors. He added that if public comments don’t support keeping the pass open, the proposal may not be included in the final plan. Yet he also noted that it’s not a vote.
“The number of comments is not as important as the quality,” Wenk said.
The latest plan is drawing cautious praise from snowmobilers. Riders were targeted for extinction in the park under earlier proposals.
“I’m optimistic, provided that the environmental community will accept this as a good-faith effort to find a balance in Yellowstone,” Seely said.
“We’re pleased that snowmobiling is a substantial part of the mix of providing access to the park,” said Jack Welch of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which advocates for motorized users. “We also think a market-based approach with events is new and worth a try.”
Allowing snowmobiles provides visitors more choice on how they want to experience the park, he said. Snowcoaches, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are the other means of seeing Yellowstone in winter.
Environmental groups have long pushed to ban snowmobiles inside Yellowstone. But since their initial opposition, snowmobiles have become cleaner, quieter and their use has been greatly restricted. Currently, snowmobilers may only enter the park with a guide and their numbers were cut to 318 a day from all four of the park’s winter entrances. Those numbers, along with 78 snowcoaches a day, would remain in effect for the next two winter seasons until the new plan can be implemented.
The idea behind the park’s change on transportation was to be more flexible about allowing increased use on popular days, such as around holidays. But it also pressures snowmobile manufacturers to make their machines quieter and cleaner.
Snowcoaches also would have to meet more restrictive emissions and noise standards.
Keeping Sylvan Pass open and allowing noncommercially guided snowmobilers are two proposals that have been previously denounced by environmental groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition based in Bozeman.
On its website the GYC’s stated mission is to “phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone in favor of cleaner, quieter, more efficient snowcoaches…”
GYC’s website said snowmobiles have been a “…a noisy, air-fouling, wildlife-stressing influence in Yellowstone for four decades.”
The GYC is studying the proposal and will comment soon.
The National Park Service intends to have its decision guiding winter use in place before the start of the 2012-2013 winter season. Yellowstone would take two years to transition to its new management alternative. Until then, the park would continue to allow 318 snowmobilers and 78 snowcoaches a day in the winter.