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Winter in Yellowstone

Snowmobiles cruise out of Old Faithful village in this Gazette winter season file photo.


Could it be that the National Park Service has finally struck an acceptable balance in its two-decade quest to make a winter use plan?

The proposed final rule published April 16 in the Federal Register had drawn only 28 online comments as of last week. The comment period runs till June 17, but that’s a quiet start for the latest rule on issues that have generated thousands of comments, multiple environmental impact statements, several lawsuits and countless public meetings since the 1990s.

The proposed rule is based on the final environmental impact statement that drew positive comments from all sides in February. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said he was “glad Wyoming’s voice was heard in the process.”

“It will have long-term beneficial impacts on the economy and the people of Wyoming,” Mead said.

“Superintendent (Dan) Wenk has developed a plan that appears to address both the economic and environmental needs of the park,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

Leaders of five conservation organizations issued a joint statement saying the latest winter use plan has merit.

Tim Stevens of Livingston, who works for National Parks Conservation Association, likes the plan’s focus on cleaner air and lower engine noise.

Motorized winter use proponents like the flexibility in the plan. Rather than setting a daily limit on the number of snowmobiles, the proposed rule would allow more snowmobiles and snowcoaches on holidays so long as seasonal average limits were met.

The proposed rule is a victory for Cody, Wyo., because NPS would keep Sylvan Pass open in winter to snowmobilers and snowcoaches coming through the east entrance.

And in a nod to snowmobile fans who want to tour the park without a commercial guide, the proposed rule would establish a pilot project allowing one group of not more than five snowmobilers to enter each day from each entrance without a commercial guide. However, one member of the group would have to be a guide who had completed an online winter guide course and won a lottery for that day and entrance.

Conservationists like the emphasis on best available technology for controlling air pollution and noise. Starting in 2015, all new snowcoaches would have to meet BAT standards. All snowcoaches and snowmobiles entering Yellowstone would have to meet BAT standards for cleaner, quieter operation by December 2017.

Between December 2015 and December 2017, the proposed rule would allow some snowmobiles without BAT, but their numbers would be limited. Snowmobile tour operators could take larger groups into the park (10 snowmobiles instead of seven) if all were cleaner, quieter machines.

That delay in requiring BAT for all snowmobiles is problematic, according to Stevens. He is hoping that the final rule will require that all snowmobiles be cleaner and quieter before 2017.

“What we’re hoping for is a rule supported by science and supported by law,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to get this right.”

Looking back at all the years of this Yellowstone battle, which has now spanned three presidential administrations, resolution has never been closer. Neither snowmobile fans nor opponents will get everything they want. However, there will still be opportunities to see Yellowstone by snowmobile and snowcoach. And both types of machines will be much cleaner and quieter than when this argument started.

The final rule indicates that NPS looked carefully at research on how winter visitors actually impact the park. The rule uses sound science, “providing greater flexibility for commercial tour operators while also rewarding future technological innovations, and reduces over-snow-vehicle-caused environmental impacts.”

An important part of the proposed rule is no change for the 2013-2014 winter season. Visitors and businesses that cater to tourists can make their plans for next winter, knowing what the rules are. The changes won’t start till December 2014.

The Yellowstone winter use rule now open for public comment is a well-balanced plan. It has the best chance of anything we’ve seen of becoming, finally, a long-term plan for the park’s amazing season of geysers, wildlife, snow and ice.