Yellowstone National Park's steaming geyser basins and pristine snowscapes used to be practically deserted in winter. But in the last 35 years there has been a veritable explosion of cold-season tourism here. In 1993, winter visitors - most of them on snowmobiles - topped the 143,000 mark, a level park officials had not expected until the end of the century.
Crowding is especially bad during the
winter holidays, when it's not unusual to find 1,000 snowmobiles at
Old Faithful. According to John Sacklin, Yellowstone's chief
planner, last year the park received 110 letters from winter
visitors, almost all complaining about congestion and related air
pollution and harassment of wildlife.
that the unlimited growth that we've experienced in the past years
cannot continue," he says. "Some kind of limits are out there on
Most of the over-snow traffic
comes from the town of West Yellowstone, Mont., which, with 1,500
snow machines for rent, calls itself the "Snowmobile Capital of the
On a busy winter morning, 50 to 70 of
the two-cycle vehicles may be waiting at the park entrance here
with their engines running. That has led to gate employees
complaining of nausea, headaches, and eye and throat irritation,
says district ranger Bob Seibert.
are dirty critters as we know them today," says Seibert. Figures
submitted to the California Air Resources Board by the snow machine
industry show that one snowmobile emits the same volume of
hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides as 1,000 cars, and as much carbon
monoxide as 250 to 500 autos.
"If you do the
multiplication," says Bob Ekey of the Greater Yellowstone
Coalition, "then 1,000 snowmobiles equal a million cars." The
coalition is calling on the Park Service to limit snowmobiles to
last year's levels.
Ekey fears that the recent
opening of the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail, which links
Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, and Lander, Wyo., will
funnel hundreds more snowmobiles into the park on busy weekends.
Once use has reached a certain level, it's difficult for park
officials to turn it back.
"What the cap (on
numbers) would do," he says, "is give us a chance to catch our
breath while there's still some fresh air."
Yellowstone officials have just begun a two-year
study to determine what effect over-snow traffic is having here.
They will survey visitors, measuring noise and air quality, and
study the effects of cold-season traffic on geothermal features and
wildlife. While the park's bison and elk seem accustomed to
snowmobiles, the routes cut through their winter ranges at a
critical time of year.
winter-use plan (completed in 1990) saw the impacts of over-snow
travel on wildlife as mostly negative - stress, displacement,
harassment, and so on. But now several park scientists, citing the
bison studies of National Biological Survey biologist Mary Meagher,
say that the groomed trails are providing bison with easy travel
routes between grazing areas, and contributing to their current
population explosion to some 4,200
Meagher conceded in her 1993 report that
factors like fire, drought, wet summers, and mild winters confused
the picture somewhat. "But," she concluded, "bison use of the
winter road system appeared to be the predominant factor."
Snow routes also give buffalo what Yellowstone
natural resources chief Stu Coleman has called "nice easy access to
According to Sacklin, there will be
no cap on winter use until the study is done. Meanwhile, the park
has put a moratorium on commercial-use licenses, whose numbers,
Sacklin says, are growing by leaps.
critical of this strategy, which, he says, in effect cuts back on
mass transit. "It forces you to rent a (personal) snow machine."
Sacklin agrees that "snow coaches and snowmobile
guided tours are great. We'd like to encourage these rather than
individual snowmobilers." The problem, he says, is that "there's no
way to limit the number of rental machines coming into the park."
At least not without a cap on visitor numbers,
which would not sit well with gateway towns like West Yellowstone.
The park's 1990 Winter Use Plan reveals that not only do winter
visitors come at a slack time of year, when they have a greater
impact on local economies, but they also tend to spend more than
summer tourists. According to preliminary figures from a recent
study by the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Commerce
Department's Snowmobile Program, residents of that state spend
$60.2 million a year on snowmobile purchases and rentals, gas,
clothing and accommodations. Add the $56.5 million nonresident
snowmobilers spend, and the statewide grand total approaches $117
Ken Davis, West Yellowstone's operations
manager, says winter recreation is "the only thing, really, that
drives our economy in the wintertime." And Viki Eggers, executive
director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, has publicly
commented that "it would be a horrible mistake to limit the number
of visitors who come to see the winter."
Lynne Bama writes
in Wapiti, Wyoming.
information about Yellowstone's winter-use study, write: Winter
Use, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY