Will snowmobile tourism relax its grip on a gateway town?
WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - On a sunny Thursday afternoon in mid-February, Glen Loomis, one of the snowmobile businessmen whose point of view dominates this small town, is telling me why people here should resist the push to ban snowmobiles from neighboring Yellowstone National Park.
"There's a thread of truth in that snowmobiles are noisy and stinky," he admits, "but to say, 'Throw the bums out!' doesn't pass the test of reasonableness. The crazy process has gone berserk."
We're up in his second-floor office, over the shop where he has 200 snowmobiles for rent for about $100 per day each, plus helmets and other gear for rent or sale, and his snowmobile dealership and parts counter. Out front are his Sinclair gas pumps, which seem to sell more gas to snowmobilers than to cars this time of year. Across the street is the Day's Inn, which he also owns, with 116 rooms for rent, almost entirely used by snowmobilers during the three-month season. Down the block are more of his properties, the Trappers Restaurant and Travelers Lodge, which also depend on the snowmobiling customers who come hundreds or thousands of miles to get here - the town that bills itself as "The Snowmobile Capital of the World."
Even sitting at his desk, wearing lug-soled boots, jeans and a Carhartt Western shirt on which his wife embroidered an elk, Loomis is dynamic. To make his points, he uses emphatic hand gestures. He grew up working with his hands on a small Wyoming farm, went East, and eventually earned a master's degree from Harvard, then came back to the region to work the tourists. He's served 11 years on the West Yellowstone city council and is now deputy mayor.
"This fight about snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park is not about protecting the park," he says. "It's about power, money and who controls access, plain and simple."
Like other snowmobile businessmen I have interviewed, Loomis is so assertive, it's hard to get a word in. I am trying to tell him I am not so interested in the park - that's the typical story of profit vs. preservation - as I am in the town itself. The emphasis on snowmobiles goes back to the town's incorporation, and it has gained such momentum by now, many people who live here think that it's become an industrial tourism monster.
I could ask Loomis to elaborate about the stink of snowmobile smoke in town, or about how one kind of business discourages another kind, or the safety questions, but I focus on noise. We can hear ample snowmobile racket from outside, because snowmobiles are encouraged to drive on town streets. Loomis pauses, waiting for one that is especially loud to pass.
Vraap vraap, vraaaaap, vraaaaaaap.
It's at least 30 yards away, and we can hear it inside the office. Loomis explains it must be one of the snowmobiles that have "tuned pipes" - exhaust systems modified for more power, which also means more noise. Tuned pipes violate the town's noise ordinance, but many snowmobilers want the extra oomph, and for various reasons the noise ordinance is almost never enforced.
Loomis says he can understand why many people in town have called for a snowmobile curfew that would at least reduce middle-of-the-night noise. But he insists a curfew isn't needed. "It would be one more of the freedoms in our country whittled away."
In the three days and nights I spend in town, stretching into the busy President's Day holiday weekend, it becomes clearer that this is a good place to talk about how small towns can be tough on any minority. In winter, this town is like a logging town or ranching town or mining town, ruled by a single industry that also rules almost all the surrounding public land.
Also noteworthy is how many people in town have had enough of it, and how they're rising up against it, despite ugly resistance from those in power. This is a town, some residents say, where you can live for 25 years running several businesses unrelated to snowmobiles and then get a beer thrown in your face because you made an offhand remark that maybe snowmobiling has gone too far.
"There is a little tension among the locals," Loomis admits.
In the next breath, he brands another city councilman, who owns a gift shop and is a native, as an "absolute" liar when it comes to assessing snowmobiling's impacts in town. "Why is he willing to perjure himself for his social cause?"
He acts shocked.
A tradition of daredevilsFrom the beginning, the people who settled near the west gate of Yellowstone Park had to be tough. It's an isolated outpost, and the Yellowstone Plateau scrapes nearly 14 feet of snow from passing storms in an average season, keeping the ground covered in white from early November to late March or April.
People here used to feast on the fat of summer, when the park attracts the biggest tourist flows; the rest of the year the economy starved. The winter touring was done on skis and dogsleds. That began to change in the 1940s, when local daredevils built pioneer snow machines called "snowplanes" - cockpits mounted on skis, powered by airplane engines and propellers spinning on the rear. Lean back too far, and the prop would take your head off. But some locals used them for touring Yellowstone Park and drag-racing outside the park.
Snowcoaches - large vans running on treads - were the next evolution. In 1955, two West Yellowstone businessmen opened snowcoach services and began taking tourists into the park.
The first snowmobiles appeared in the early 1960s, loud and smoky, but with advantages of individual freedom, speed and maneuverability. When people voted to organize a town government in 1966, one of the main reasons was to pass an ordinance allowing snowmobiles to drive on local streets. Without a town and a town ordinance, Montana forbids snowmobiles on streets.
Snowmobile tourism took hold, then exploded beginning in the 1980s. Instead of shutting down, West Yellowstone now sells at least $18 million in goods and services from December through March, one-third of the town's annual total, mostly due to snowmobiles. The town doesn't quite have 1,200 residents, but it has 14 rental shops offering roughly 1,300 snowmobiles. Add the snowmobiles owned by locals, and all the snowmobiles that tourists haul here on trailers, and on peak days there are 2,000 to 3,000 snowmobiles buzzing around town.
The snowmobilers come in droves from Minnesota, and from the Dakotas and elsewhere around the West. Large groups come in tour buses from as far away as Florida. The town snowplows leave a skim on the streets for easy sliding, and access to Yellowstone Park's steamy geyser basins and charismatic winter wildlife remains a big draw.
The park grooms 184 miles of its roads for snow traffic, and the snowmobilers have far surpassed snowcoach tourists and skiers in the park (outnumbering them 7-to-1 and maybe 50-to-1, respectively). In an average season now, 55,000 snowmobilers enter the park through the West Yellowstone gate, the great majority of all the snowmobiles in the park.
But the park is no longer the only draw.
The West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, combining donations from town businesses with government trails funding, runs its own ambitious grooming effort that extends into the Gallatin National Forest that borders the other three sides of town. The chamber has five grooming tractors and eight guys on the crew, rumbling out every night to smooth 207 miles of forest trails, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service.
From the chamber's groomed trails, you can connect to more trails through national forest in Idaho, groomed by a snowmobile program there, and by driving through Yellowstone you can connect to Grand Teton National Park and national forest trails in Wyoming, groomed by snowmobile programs there.
You can climb on a snowmobile here and drive from the edge of town for at least 1,370 miles without going off-trail or off-road. It's the equivalent of being able to drive on groomed snow from here to beyond the Mexican border.
Snowmobilers tear it off in chunks * driving as much as 240 miles in one day. They like the off-trail terrain too, every winter penetrating farther into the back country to bust powder.
After talking to Loomis, I set out to explore what the town has created. My dinky, entry-level Polaris snowmobile has about half the power of the average terrain gobbler here. I tool out one side of town to the handiest terrain, the old airport, which has been converted into a playground for snowmobilers. They're zinging this way and that at random and lining up to stage modern drag races, trying to reach takeoff speeds. It reminds me of the old snowplanes, except that the fastest machines here regularly top 80 mph.
I begin by putt-putting cautiously. But it's infectious, and pretty soon, I'm racing out the runway as fast as my machine wants to go, 40 mph, bucking the moguls, trying not to collide with others that come at me from any direction. I rein in my grin, stop next to some snowmobilers who are from Utah and Wyoming.
"Are there any rules out here?" I ask.
"Yeah," says one guy. "Go as fast as you can, and don't kill yourself."
Like a beach town during spring breakThere is no speed limit at the airport or anywhere else off-trail. On forest trails, the limit is 45, but it's enforced very sparsely by a few Forest Service cops with a bubble-light snowmobile and radar guns. One tells me, "We're fairly lenient on our speeding violations. Most folks are out here to enjoy the scenery, and every once in a while they blow it out."
When I grind up a trail a couple of hours to the Two Top saddle on Friday - 8,200 feet on the Continental Divide - the view goes all the way to the Teton spires in Wyoming. Snowmobilers are having picnic lunches and wine on the divide. All the meadows are a grid of tread tracks. Some are powering up the ridgeline as far as they can get. A half-dozen Minnesotans are doing jumps: gunning it off a tall drift, circling around and gunning it over the drift again.
Back in town, I'd have to be blind and deaf not to notice that hundreds of the snowmobilers are playfully violating traffic rules, common sense and the town's noise ordinance.
From dawn to way after dark, it's an impromptu parade on the town streets and alleys, through the mixed neighborhoods where motels, stores and cafes are shuffled together with houses, trailers and apartments. Generally, the snowmobilers are pleasant and well-behaved, but among them I see these in abundance: Guys breaking the town speed limit (25 mph), or just driving with no helmets or eye protection. Guys driving with passengers standing up with no handholds. Kids driving who are obviously years younger than the legal age (15 in town, 12 on the trails). Young girls with no helmets, but with goggles, lipstick, and long hair and scarves trailing in the wind. Guys sliding through stop signs, gunning around corners spinning up tall plumes of snow, and sometimes skidding into obstacles. One kid driving and two kids crammed on the seat behind him - a threefer.
West Yellowstone in snowmobile season, I realize, most resembles a beach town in Florida or Mexico during spring break: People come here to party with their toys.
At 11 one night, I come across three snowmobilers doing jumps off a snowbank between two motels. There aren't many snowmobilers stirring in town this late, but the ones that are make themselves very noticeable: The principle seems to be, the later at night it is, the more rpms you need. These three tear around a brief trail passing within a few inches of one motel and explode off their jump, slamming down on the street, again and again. At 11:30 p.m., three more come tearing through a neighborhood and out to the old airport. I can hear their noise long after their lights disappear into the woods.
The town's noise ordinance prohibits more than 78 decibels at a distance of 50 feet - about as loud as a kitchen garbage disposal to someone standing at the sink. But these are much louder. The engines are probably souped up with the tuned exhaust pipes that violate the ordinance. It sounds like they're riding around on chain saws.
When I get the chance to ask West Yellowstone Police Chief Bill Provonost about the flaunting of the noise ordinance and other things, he says he has only a few officers to cover whatever comes up around the clock. "It's like anything else. We can't be on every street all the time. To catch all of them is impossible."
Enforcing the noise ordinance would typically take three officers - one to hold the decibel meter, another to control the throttle on the snowmobile, and another to direct traffic around the commotion or pitch in as needed. That means pretty much the entire on-duty police force spending that much time and effort to check one snowmobile. It simply isn't practical.
Keeping the customers happyThe city council was willing to pass the ineffective noise ordinance in 1997, but when residents called for a serious noise reduction strategy, the council balked.
The uprising began innocently enough in 1999, when an English teacher, Sherrie Williams, assigned a class of high school juniors to community service projects. Three of the students had to identify a community need and get the city council to address it. They stood on street corners and conducted a survey of people walking by. The main problem people identified was snowmobile noise, especially in the night.
So the students drafted a curfew ordinance. No snowmobiles on the streets from 11 at night to 5 in the morning.
"This was all about what you have to do to live in a community and take part and get along," Williams says, "and to show the kids they can have an impact on government."
But when the students took it to the city council, only two of the five council members were in favor. The other three had ties to snowmobile businesses - along with Loomis being on the council, the mayor owns another snowmobile rental shop, and another councilman's wife then worked as head of sales and marketing for the biggest snowmobile shop in town. For years now, no matter who gets elected to city council, it seems a majority has ties to snowmobiling.
Curfew opponents say it would erode freedom and discourage customers. They worry about snowmobilers who drink in the town's saloons until late, then drive to their motel rooms; with a curfew on snowmobiles, those customers would have to walk a couple of blocks. And a curfew would make it harder to access the trails and Yellowstone Park late at night (even the park gets traffic all night).
"West Yellowstone attracts mavericks - guys who don't like too many rules and regulations," says Cal Dunbar, who's lived here since before snowmobiles, and is co-owner of one of the town's grocery stores. He lives on an alley where "snowmobiles come up and down all the time," and says, "I can't honestly say they bug me all that much. You can't have snow machines without a little noise."
"It's horrendous," counters June Clewell, who's lived in town 17 years and runs the Bookworm bookstore with her husband, Scott. They live in a condo on another busy corner, and she says she tries to sleep with a pillow over her head and radio earplugs playing all-night classical music or talk shows.
"They really don't quiet down until an hour after the bars close (which means 3 a.m.)," she says. "They get a snootful and then go out and run off into the trees."
Bruce Coan, a doctor who ran a practice in Billings for 30 years and then retired to West Yellowstone in 1999, also says he uses earplugs at night. He lives in the only neighborhood off by itself, where motels, cafes and snowmobile shops are not mixed in - but even there, in the Madison Addition, he says, "many times" snowmobilers have ripped through his yard after midnight, taking the shortcut from forest trails into town. "They go wherever they please."
Previous proposals for a curfew had also stalled. But this time, the people who wanted it wouldn't give up so easily. Coan helped organize a petition drive to force it, tuned somewhat, to a townwide vote: with a few exceptions, no snowmobiles on the streets from 11:15 p.m. to 5:45 a.m.
"It was hard on my family," says Katie Burton, one of the students who identified the curfew as a community need. Her father works as a snowmobile mechanic. She says her parents supported her school project wholeheartedly but ended up voting against the curfew when it appeared on last November's ballot.
The curfew vote truly measured local sentiment since only about a dozen people on the federal Yellowstone Park payroll live in town. It revealed an almost perfect split: The curfew lost by six votes, 149 to 143. Yet the victors still wouldn't give an inch.
People who want a curfew are "cry-babies," Dunbar says. "If you want curfews, go live somewhere they have curfews."
Other tourism suffersAn uprising over loss of sleep might occur in a beach town where the party lasts all night, or in a ranching town where cattle are driven though the streets at 3 a.m., or in a logging town where skidders drag logs down the alleys at 3 a.m.
But the uprising here is more; it exemplifies how communities throughout the West are struggling to find balance and maturity.
Being the snowmobile capital works for the entire town in some ways, such as raising money for essential local government services. Voters OK'd a resort-area tax on retail trade in 1984, and collections have grown so large on the year-round tourism that they now fund 92 percent of town government.
But the gung-ho promotion of snowmobiles is a deterrent to tourists who like peace and quiet. And it's a disaster for people running winter businesses that would thrive in a quieter atmosphere.
Of all the hundreds of miles of trails the Chamber of Commerce grooms, only 26 miles are dedicated to cross-country skiers, mostly in the Rendezvous trail system, which runs from town into the national forest. Even so, thanks to the weather and a local ski program, the town has gained a reputation for skiing.
The busiest month for skiers is November, before the snowmobiling season kicks into gear. That's when the ski program runs clinics, camps and races that attract skiers from around the world, including college teams, ski-factory teams, the U.S. Ski Team, biathletes and Olympic teams.
The number of skiers using the Rendezvous trail system grows every winter, and another big ski race is held each March, but snowmobile noise and traffic "definitely hurts the skiing," says Drew Barney, who's run the ski program for 15 years. One snowmobile trail crosses the ski trail about a half-mile from town, and the noise from several snowmobile trails can be heard on significant stretches of the ski-trail system, says Barney.
"We're the only business in town that can say November is our busiest month," says Melissa Buller, co-owner of a local ski shop, Freeheel and Wheel. "People come here in anticipation of being able to ski wherever they want. Then they find out it's almost all for snowmobiling." That includes tourists who are interested in skiing in Yellowstone Park, but discover the snowmobile noise saturates the popular geyser basins. "We definitely would like to see more of a balance, in the park and the forest."
Scott Clewell, who runs the Bookworm with his wife, remembers that skiers were more of a force in the early 1970s, when he worked in Yellowstone in the lodges around Old Faithful. The first winter lodge in the park opened at Old Faithful in 1971, and "the first two years, 80 percent of the people staying overnight were cross-country skiers," he says. They'd ride a snowcoach in and ski for a few days. But as the snowmobile traffic increased, "the next two years, 80 percent (of the overnighters) were snowmobilers. As each year went by, it got harder and harder to ski away from the sound."
The business of snowcoach tours also has been suppressed, says Scott Carsley, who's run Yellowstone Alpen Guides for 18 years, with eight coaches now based in town. Alpen Guides hauls about a third of the 11,500 snowcoach tourists who enter the park in an average winter, and Carsley says he could haul a lot more, if not for the fact his customers are turned off by the relentless snowmobile noise, smoke and traffic jams.
"Every single day we have complaints about snowmobiles," says Carsley. "So many people ride the snowcoaches and have a great day but swear they'll never be back until something is done about the snowmobiles."
The uprising includes some newcomers, like Buller, who opened the ski shop in 1996, and retiree Coan * and a core of the local old-timers.
"We've taken one thing that's made a lot of money and concentrated only on that," says Gibson Bailey, who was born here, used to work as a snowmobile tourist guide, and still owns three snowmobiles. Now he runs a gift shop, where he estimates only 5 to 10 percent of his annual sales come from snowmobilers. He's willing to risk a shift toward other winter tourists.
"There's a whole other industry out there: eco-tourism, people learning about where they go, getting exercise skiing and snowshoeing," says Bailey. "We have a lot of history here, and geology and thermal features - this place is pretty amazing. We've hardly touched on that. With the snowmobile industry, there is no interpretation. They're just racking up the miles. They want their guides to show them where the good riding is. They don't want to know where Chief Joseph was, or where the moose are."
It's for making such statements that Loomis calls Bailey a liar.
Free-market squeezeThe snowmobile businessmen don't like to talk about the local split. They act like they're fighting foreign enemies - the National Park Service and out-of-town environmental groups that are trying to ban or limit snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks (see sidebar).
It's a common complaint around the West - that it's the feds and outsider environmentalists shutting down logging, ranching and mining, as well as snowmobiles.
The leading snowmobile businessman, Clyde Seely, says with pride, "This town was built on snowmobiling."
Seely was raised on a small farm in Idaho and settled here in 1966. He started as a schoolteacher, then borrowed to buy a motel in 1970. It caught fire the day he signed the papers, and he hustled to rebuild it in time to open for an influx of snowmobilers attending a big race. Seeing the possibilities, he got into renting snowmobiles the next winter.
Back then, "nobody was doing any marketing," Seely recalls, so he typed up a list of reasons to snowmobile here, flew to Minnesota and met with snowmobile clubs and travel agencies. "The first group of snowmobilers that came that first winter (from Minnesota) is still coming back," he says, "and their kids are grown and coming now, and some grandkids."
Either on his own or with a partner, Bill Howell, Seely's empire today features "the biggest rental fleet in the world, for sure" - 275 snowmobiles. It includes the biggest motel in town (the Holiday Inn/Yellowstone Conference Center, with 123 rooms), another motel and motel annex, associated restaurants and bars, the town's non-IMAX movie theater, the Economart gas station/convenience store/car wash, a guest ranch outside town, and various apartments, homes and trailers that house employees.
"We blazed the path" for snowmobile business here, Seely says. "We proved you could stay open in winter."
With sweat equity like that, the snowmobile businessmen are hard to budge. Yet right in town, 160 locals - a good portion of the local voters - have signed another petition that calls for changes in snowmobile use of Yellowstone Park "to keep the park healthy" and to encourage the town's economy to diversify.
And really, the snowmobile businessmen also feel pressure from their own ambition, and from their own system, free-market capitalism: They're competing now with some major players that have invaded town.
Since 1995, a Texas corporation and a South Dakota corporation have opened four state-of-the-art motels in West Yellowstone, all with indoor pools and one with heated underground parking. Independently, a Comfort Inn opened. All those motels offer special packages to snowmobilers. And two new snowmobile rental shops have opened.
Trying to keep up, the older motels in town have remodeled, expanded and emphasized their snowmobile rentals. But the expectations may have gotten too large: During the peak tourist season last summer, for the first time anyone could remember the town had some motel rooms vacant.
That helps explain why the snowmobile businessmen act like any reduction in their use of the parks or the town will draw blood.
"We cannot stand a drop in visitation," Seely says.
The lines are drawnThis town feels more hungry than a downhill ski resort town. It shows in how friendly people here are to tourists - in the cafes, motels and shops, the service I get is excellent. But behind the scenes, as the uprising makes progress, things get uglier.
Bailey says he grew up with several of the people who run snowmobile rental shops, and they used to be friends. But because he believes in the curfew and the need for changes in snowmobile traffic, they've had a falling out. "One guy's wife called me an uneducated idiot."
Nevertheless, Bailey was elected to the city council in November, running on his snowmobile position. "The lines have been drawn in town," he says.
"To hell with" the people who want a curfew, says Jack Clarkson, who works as a counselor, runs a summer resort, used to run the Chamber of Commerce, and was also elected to the city council in November. "They need to take their head out of their ass and see they live in a town that lives on snowmobiles."
Clarkson confronted staffers and volunteers of a Bozeman-based environmental group, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, when they came to town in February 2001. They boarded Alpen Guides snowcoaches in town and were about to drive into Yellowstone Park to take photos of snowmobile traffic there. Clarkson leaned into a coach and snapped photos of them. At the time, he was wearing black pants, a black shirt and a black cap with a West Yellowstone Police logo.
Several people in the coach live in town and complained to the police chief, saying Clarkson seemed to be pretending to be a cop. "It was intimidation - what on earth would you call it?" says one, Bruce Coan.
"So here we have the ex-president of the Chamber of Commerce, interfering with my business," says Alpen Guides' Carsley.
"I just took some pictures of the people who were going to take pictures," Clarkson says. "Anyone can buy one of those hats at (the town police station) for $15." He got rid of the hat after a talk with the chief, he says.
"I think the town has regressed," says Scott Clewell, whose attempts to scratch out a living here include a stint as police chief in the early 1980s. He says he got a faceful of hostility in a local bar recently. "I just said I thought (quieter snowmobiles) would be a nice way to quiet down the park," he says, and a woman whose family is in the snowmobile business drenched him with a beer.
"This is a small town. We all have to go to the post office to pick up our mail," says Barbara Abramo, who's lived here eight years, works at the Bookworm, and helped circulate the curfew petitions. "I might say hello to someone and they just turn away."
Selling tickets to the enemyDespite the impasse, tiny steps of change seem guaranteed. With the National Park Service ready to limit snowmobile traffic in the parks, even the snowmobile businessmen are beginning to offer some snowcoach tours, protesting mightily. Basically, they have to learn to sell some tickets to their enemies.
The Environmental Protection Agency - representing the national public - is also ordering the snowmobile manufacturers to make machines whose exhaust is cleaner (see sidebar). Snowmobile noise is not being addressed directly, but the cleaner machines tend to be less loud, so the federal orders may also eventually result in more people here getting a good night's sleep.
Change will also come from motivated locals. "I am bound and determined to change this town," says Jackie Mathews, who's lived here 24 years and runs a fly-fishing shop. She's negotiating with the Forest Service to designate a new backcountry trail for skiers, and is trying to find funding for an indoor hockey rink that could be used for concerts and ranger talks in the summer.
The struggle here is not so much about noise or smoke or dollars, as it is about how to get along and honor your neighbor's concerns, no matter whose side has the advantage of numbers. It's not about how the town will grow, but how the town will grow up.
The snowmobile tourists pass through, most of them blissfully unaware. One night in a bar, where a band plays country rock, I see a woman clad in a white, sequined dress, dancing with a guy who's got a boutonniere pinned to his tuxedo jacket. Christie and Vince Marier.
They're also from Minnesota, but with a special twist - they came here to get married. They tell me about it: They had the ceremony in a West Yellowstone church, then the bride hiked up her dress and she and the groom snowmobiled from the church while the rest of their party threw handfuls of snow instead of rice.
They say they plan to spend their honeymoon snowmobiling around here.
They're happy, and it's not appropriate for me to spoil it with a dose of local reality. I wish them a good time.