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Snowmobiles:
A Blessing or a Curse for Wyoming's National Parks?

By Bridget Lyons
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2002, Vol. 18, No. 1

As the first snow falls here in Wyoming and a gubernatorial election approaches, snowmobiles are back in the news. Everyone seems to have an opinion about “sleds,” and recent events in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks have brought the variety and intensity of these opinions to light.

When Teddy Roosevelt established Yellowstone National Park in 1872, he didn’t foresee the advent of snowmobiles. At that point, there was little or no winter recreation in the park to speak of, and there was no “Winter Use Plan.” In 1949, the first motorized oversnow vehicle — the “snowplane” — entered the park, followed by “snowcoaches” in 1963. During this time period, local communities requested that the park plow its roads in the winter to increase the recreation and tourism opportunities that might allow these towns to survive the season.

In 1964 the first snowmobiles entered Yellowstone, and during the next decade, the number of sleds there increased thirty-fold — from 1,000 in 1964 to 30,000 in 1974. Other parks, such as Yosemite, Glacier and Sequoia/Kings Canyon instituted outright bans on snowmobiles in the 70s, all of which remain in place today. Yellowstone did not establish any bans, and by 1995, 143,000 snowmobiles recreated within its borders. Park employees and environmentalists became increasingly concerned about the ecological impacts of snowmachines, especially when carbon monoxide levels at the West Yellowstone entrance registered higher than in Los Angeles. It became clear that Yellowstone needed to develop a comprehensive winter use plan, and in 1999 government officials began this long and complex process.

Public comment on drafts of the winter use plan overwhelmingly supported the proposal to “phase out” snowmobiles, and the government responded accordingly. In January of 2001, the Park Service announced that snowmobiles would be banned from the park by 2004. In their place, the public would tour Yellowstone from snowcoaches — quieter, lower-emission, ten-passenger vehicles.

Not everyone was happy with this plan, however. The International Snowmobile Manufacturers’ Association, with the support of a number of Wyoming communities and motorized recreation groups, sued the Government. Administrations changed and tides turned in Washington, and the Department of the Interior agreed to return to the planning process once again.

The outcome of this latest round of planning was presented to the public in June of this year — snowmobile use will continue in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, with “strict limitations” using “the best available technology.”

Why the change of heart? And why all the controversy? Consider these facts:
- Two-thirds of all winter visitors to Yellowstone are riding snowmobiles.
- Snowmobiles allow families to recreate together; elderly and physically challenged visitors have access to the park’s natural beauty.
- Advances in engine technology have yielded quieter, more efficient snowmachines that create less noise and exhaust.
- The Park Service estimates that a snowmobile ban will result in a 30% decline in visitation to the Greater Yellowstone area — a loss of $16.5 million and 400 jobs.

If Yellowstone replaced snowmachines with multi-passenger snowcoaches, would the surrounding communities see the same economic benefits? It seems unlikely. The people who enjoy the thrill of snowmobiling in Yellowstone are not the same ones who would visit the park in what is essentially a bus. Would snowcoaches attract a new and different type of winter tourist? Most definitely. It is doubtful, however, that there would be as many snowcoach riders as snowmobile riders. Almost certainly, snowcoach visitors would spend less money — snowmobiles typically are rented out at $100 per day.

What sacrifice is made for these economic and recreational benefits? More facts to consider:
- Ninety percent of Yellowstone’s hydrocarbon emissions are caused by snowmobiles — one of the most commonly used snowmobile models produces the same exhaust as 90 cars.
- Snowmobile noise penetrates up to 10 miles — winter visitors to Old Faithful can hear engine noise at all times.
- Wildlife are stressed by the presence of snowmobiles. When they expend their winter energy reserve to avoid oncoming sleds or modify their eating and migration patterns as a result of noise and human presence, they are further taxing their bodies.
- There are 130,000 miles of designated snowmobile trails in the U.S.; only 600 of these are in National Parks.

The mission of the National Park Service is to “conserve…and to provide for the enjoyment of…the scenery, natural and historic objects, wildlife in such a manner…as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Is snowmobiling compatible with this mission? Land managers and citizens across the country will be watching to see how this question is answered.

A week before the writing of this article, Yellowstone announced that it planned to institute stricter emissions standards than those upheld by the EPA. All three gubernatorial candidates went on record supporting continued snowmachine use in Yellowstone, although with varying degrees of regulation. And the “Yellowstone Protection Act,” which calls for a return to the outright ban on snowmobile use, continues to be debated in Congress.

I’d wager that you have an opinion, too. When was the last time you wrote a letter to a public official?

Bridget Lyons has been a NOLS Instructor since 1995 and has been active in building course curriculum for teaching land management issues on NOLS courses.


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