The simplest way to evaluate snowmobile traffic in Yellowstone National Park is to flip-flop the season to summer: Imagine if most of the people touring the park in July rode motorcycles.
The central issue is how to conduct mass transportation in a popular national park. But that's been largely overlooked. The arguments have focused instead on snowmobile noise and pollution, and disturbance of wildlife and serenity.
All the players have committed blunders.
Leaders of Yellowstone Park didn't consider the long-term picture when they let in the first snowmobiles in the 1960s. While other parks, such as Glacier, decided not to allow snowmobile tourism, Yellowstone's traffic soared during the 1970s and 1980s, and park officials still failed to assess the impacts.
Environmental groups didn't force the issue until 1997, when the Fund for Animals and others finally sued the National Park Service, demanding at least a study of the impacts of snowmobiling on wildlife.
The snowmobile industry didn't begin to produce cleaner-exhaust, quieter machines until this winter - decades after cleaner, quieter motors were developed for motorcycles and boats.
Now the first attempt to manage winter traffic in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks careens toward a finish line. The Park Service settled the environmentalist lawsuit by doing a massive environmental impact statement, and, backed by the Clinton administration, the agency decided in 2000 to phase out snowmobiles. Then the pro-snowmobile interests sued, and the Bush administration settled that lawsuit by ordering the Park Service to do a re-evaluation.
In all, the Park Service has analyzed more than 73,400 public comments (most, form letters orchestrated by the interest groups). Even in the re-evaluation, most commenters want something done about snowmobiles. The point of discussion has shifted dramatically: The re-evaluation -- called the Winter Use Plans Draft Supplemental EIS, just published for yet another round of comment -- lays out four alternatives, but none would allow the current level of snowmobile traffic to continue.
All the new alternatives intend to shift more of the winter traffic into van-like snowcoaches that each hold 10 or more people and are driven by experienced guides who explain the park's features and minimize disturbance of wildlife.
Briefly, the new alternatives are:
Alternative 1A sticks to the phase-out, beginning next winter. By the winter of 2003-2004, snowmobiles would be banned.
Alternative 1B merely delays the phase-out one year.
Alternative 2 caps the total traffic at no more than 1,300 snowmobiles per day through all gates, with no more than 500 through the West Yellowstone gate (which now by itself handles an average of 550 a day and as many as 1,300 on a peak day).
Alternative 3 caps the daily traffic at a lower level, 930 snowmobiles total, with 330 through the west gate. Snowmobiles would have to travel in groups led by guides.
You can read the full alternatives and comment through May 29 (see information at the end of this story). The Park Service is scheduled to issue a final decision by November 15.
Ironically, drawing together studies done in the parks and elsewhere, the Park Service still can't prove conclusively that snowmobiles harm wildlife. "There is no smoking gun," says Madeleine Vander Heyden, a wildlife biologist in Grand Teton.
Snowmobile traffic harasses and stresses individual animals -- including bison and nesting bald eagles -- at the most dangerous time of year, Vander Heyden says. But studies so far have not proved that wildlife populations suffer higher mortality or lower reproductive rates due to that stress.
The Park Service has adopted a protective stance in accordance with its mission, Vander Heyden says. "There is enough evidence to show wildlife is being disturbed. We know the importance of winter wildlife range, and certainly it is in the park's purview to regulate over-snow motorized use in winter range.
A tough transition
Checking the park scene, I drive my snowmobile from West Yellowstone 30 miles to the signature geyser basin at Old Faithful. It's about what I experienced seven winters ago, when I rode to Old Faithful in a snowcoach. The road experience, all the pullouts and geyser basins along it are defined by the noise and pack-like traffic of the snowmobiles.
In the park I see bison plodding through the snow, nesting bald eagles, trumpeter swans up close. In one eerie stretch, steam hangs so thick over the road, it's a dense fog generating snowflakes. At Old Faithful, hundreds of us dismount long enough to watch the beginning of an eruption of Old Faithful. Many around me turn their backs and walk away before it's even done erupting.
Even for me, standing on the boardwalk feeling numb and deafened by the snowmobile ride, the geyser seems diminished, less powerful than the machine.
Environmental groups still want the phase-out of the ubiquitous snowmobile. So do editorial writers at major Western newspapers, including the Casper Star-Tribune, Denver Post and Salt Lake Tribune.
No one doubts that a transition will be hard on the gateway towns. While snowmobiling tourists also come to drive in the national forests, the park is the most famous attraction.
"It took 25 years to build what we have (a winter economy emphasizing snowmobiles)," says Marysue Costello, head of the Chamber of Commerce in West Yellowstone. "It will take time to build (snowcoach tourism), and there will be a trough (in winter revenues). It will be a process of finding (more snowcoach tourists) and marketing to them. How do we get through that trough?"
Some of the rental shops are already adding a few new snowcoaches to their fleets, but they still face hurdles. Snowcoaches today are either old Bombardiers, made from 1953 to 1996, which ride like a cross between a Volkswagen Beetle and an Army tank, or newer hybrids that are pricey (at least $70,000 each) and prone to breakdowns.
Environmental groups and the National Park Service have called for federal funding -- low-interest loans to help snowmobile businesses diversify -- but the Bush administration has opposed it, says Jon Catton, spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group based in Bozeman, Mont.
The Park Service is also working with "private and public partners," including automakers and foundations, to develop a reliable "multi-season vehicle ... designed from the ground up" for mass transportation in winter and summer, says John Sacklin, Yellowstone's chief planner.
"It would be a vehicle designed for use in national parks," as distinguished as the historic tour buses in Yellowstone and Glacier, Sacklin says.
The Park Service will also offer expertise on the outreach to "a more general public that likes to recreate in a cold climate. This isn't about denying access to Yellowstone in winter, it's about changing the emphasis on modes of travel," Sacklin says.
You can view the draft supplemental EIS on the Internet at www.winteruseplanning.net. Or request a printed copy, by calling Grand Teton's planning office at 307/739-3321 or by e-mailing their planning office at http://firstname.lastname@example.org.