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Snow elk
Two bull elk rest and graze in a snowy field in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park in winter.

The National Park Service’s latest proposal for winter travel in Yellowstone National Park comes close to status quo — with a few new ideas to balance motorized and quieter park travel and to tighten engine emission rules.

For the past two years, a temporary rule allowed up to 318 snowmobiles and 78 snow coaches to enter the park each day of the season running from mid-December till early March.

The NPS “preferred alternative” in the draft plan released this month provides for up to 330 snowmobiles and 80 snow coaches per day, but the limit would vary on different days. The number of snowmobiles admitted would range from 110 to 330 per day while the number of snow coaches could range from 30 to 80. The reason for variable limits is “so visitors would have a greater variety of motorized and nonmotorized experiences throughout the season,” according to NPS. Translation: Some days would be quieter, some would be crowded. Of course that’s what has been happening for years: Christmas week and holiday weekends are crowded, other midweek periods much less so.

The proposal calls for a schedule of daily over-snow vehicle limits to be publicized at least a year in advance.

Certainty for next winter

Nothing will change for the 2011-12 winter season — not under the preferred alternative nor under any other alternative studied. This is a crucial provision because visitors already are starting to book tours for next winter and businesses need certainty about the season so they can market it, plan staffing and order supplies and equipment.

Immediate reaction to news of the latest plan ranged from disappointment that it didn’t allow more snowmobiles to dismay that it allowed any at all.

The debate has already spanned four decades. In the 1990s, conservation groups sued to force NPS to restrict the snowmobile traffic that caused a blue haze and deafening roars at the West Yellowstone entrance station, at Old Faithful and other popular park stops. The agency’s first winter-use environmental impact statement, completed in 2000 under the Clinton administration, recommended a ban on snowmobiles. Snowmobile fans and manufacturers successfully blocked the ban, and another environmental impact statement was prepared during the Bush administration. In it, NPS decided that snowmobiles would be compatible with the park if the machines were cleaner, quieter, limited in number and accompanied by a trained guide. Environmental groups sued to overturn that rule. Another plan was prepared, prompting competing lawsuits by snowmobile and conservation interests.

Cleaner, quieter travel

Changes implemented over the years have significantly reduced air and noise pollution by requiring best available engine technology and limiting the number of snow machines in the park.

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In the unusually snowy season that ended in March, 88,804 people visited the park, about half of them traveling in wheeled vehicles through the park’s north entrance, according to NPS. The number of visitors on snowmobiles was 22,291 while the number arriving in snow coaches was 22,774. The season’s peak snowmobile day logged 289, well below the daily limit of 318. The peak snow coach count was 68, also below the daily limit of 78.

In the latest planning process, NPS considered seven alternatives allowing as many as 720 snowmobiles daily or as few as zero.

The preferred alternative is a compromise. It appears to be scientifically defensible. It doesn’t significantly impair air or sound quality or substantially impact wildlife. It would continue to require that all motorized over-snow visitors be customers of NPS-authorized tour businesses. It wouldn’t require those businesses to change their operations. It would let visitors choose among all modes of winter travel. The proposed one-year advance calendar would let visitors see what days would be best for a cross-country ski excursion undisturbed by road noise.

The preferred plan does a fair job of balancing the competing interests of people who love Yellowstone for different reasons.

However, this draft isn’t yet final. Now’s the time for Yellowstone fans to speak up. Check the box at left for more information and let your opinion be heard by July 20.

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