YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - Wendy Ross traveled the globe before settling into a job at Yellowstone National Park. Now she suffers from what she calls "the worst air I've ever breathed."
She and her co-workers at the park's
west entrance depend on air pumped into their glass booths from a
port about 75 feet off the road, but they still get hit hard when
they work the outdoor shift checking pre-paid park passes.
"If I were in L.A. or Denver or even Salt Lake
City, I'd be expecting it," says the 26-year-old. "But you just
don't expect it coming to the most beautiful place in the world."
But it's true. The nation's highest carbon
monoxide levels are to be found in Yellowstone, according to the
National Park Service. The world's oldest national park has flunked
three tests for federal carbon monoxide standards during the past
14 months, and the Park Service says the most recent, conducted
March 2, confirms that the air is dangerous on busy winter days.
Yellowstone officials say the
snowmobiles' "deplorably dirty" engines are making park gatekeepers
complain of dizziness, headaches and nausea. They say engine fumes
make workers so dopey they sometimes can't count
"There is no doubt in our minds ... that
this is an extremely unhealthy place to have people working," said
Bob Seibert, the park's west-district ranger.
last month's test, researchers riding a snowmobile rigged with an
air-monitoring device recorded carbon monoxide levels at 36 parts
per million along the well-traveled 14-mile stretch between West
Yellowstone and Madison Junction, Seibert
The federal limit is 35 parts per million,
and Park Service figures show the highest level recorded anywhere
in the nation during 1995 was 32 parts per million in Southern
California's Imperial County.
The day of the last
Yellowstone test, 2,304 visitors toured the park, about an average
number for a winter Saturday. Because nearly all park roads are
closed to automobiles in winter, the vast majority of 150,000
annual winter visitors see the park via snowmobile along narrow
strips of groomed roadway.
The Park Service
reported high carbon monoxide levels at the park's west entrance
last winter, but this year's study has officials most concerned
because it shows that visitors are breathing bad air inside the
park as well as at the gate. Environmental concerns aren't that big
a deal: only 80 feet from the roadways, carbon monoxide levels drop
"This is a very localized phenomenon,
but ... it's where the public is traveling and it's where we have
our employees working long hours," Seibert
The test results don't wash with everyone.
Bob Jeffrey, an air quality specialist with the Montana Department
of Environmental Quality, said hooking up an air monitor to a
snowmobile and driving it around the park is not acceptable
protocol for state and federal testing. The federal government has
numerous regulations regarding how samples should be taken, and
they don't use mobile test stations.
air quality specialist Miguel Flores acknowledged the testing
didn't meet federal standards and said more studies are needed. But
he maintained the early results are scientifically valid.
The air quality issue bolsters the Park
Service's push to set limits on the number of Yellowstone visitors.
Complaints based on aesthetics, crowds, lines and a lack of
solitude are now compounded by a public-health threat. Skier and
snowshoer numbers could be affected, but it's snowmobile
restrictions that would likely prove the most contentious:
Snowmobile rentals have become a huge industry in the past 20 years
for the park's border towns, particularly West Yellowstone,
On the busiest days, more than 1,000 of the
two-stroke engine-driven sleds zip in and out of the park gate at
the edge of the city. Most of those machines are rented from the
business community's 1,400-strong fleet, and out-of-state riders at
West Yellowstone pump an estimated $30 million into Montana's
economy each year.
But the Park Service says a
winter survey backs its argument that growing numbers of people and
snowmobiles are ruining the trip for some who come to the park to
see its world-famous geysers, winter wildlife, and snow-blanketed
"I am disappointed, definitely," said
Boulder, Colo., attorney Pam Cole, standing on her touring skis
near Old Faithful and speaking above the din of dozens of
snowmobiles. The exhaust hung so thick in places you could taste
Snowmobile backers see things differently:
"It's a public place, just like Niagara Falls," said Adena Cook of
the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an off-road vehicle advocacy group.
"It's a natural phenomenon, but natural doesn't equate to wild."
Cook pointed out that snowmobiles are only
allowed on roadways, and quiet solitude inside the 2.2 million-acre
park is only as far away as the far side of the nearest ridge. That
can take a skier or snowshoer with enough muscles and gumption as
little as 20 minutes.
But most visitors never
leave the crowds, noise and smoke.
let cars in, so they ought to let snowmobiles in," said Mike Pine,
who moved recently from Atlanta to Bozeman, as he sat in front of
Old Faithful waiting for it to blow. He was bewildered that anyone
would want to limit the snowmobiles.
Most who who
were asked about the snowmobile issue had a similar
"If at certain times things are a little
crowded, that means you're doing something right," Cook said. "I
really resist people telling us something is for our own good,
especially when it's the federal government."
Viki Eggers, director of the West Yellowstone
Chamber of Commerce, said the smiling faces and rave reviews day
in, day out, prove the park is still a fun place to visit. She
pointed to the Park Service's own survey as further evidence the
public still loves the winter trip into Wonderland. More than 60
percent of those surveyed in 1995 said there should be no limits on
winter visitor numbers.
like Wendy Ross continue to breathe the plumes of blue smoke riders
leave behind as they roar into the park.
home and your ears are ringing and you have a headache," she said.
"You feel really disoriented."
superintendent Mike Finley said something will have to
"It's not only a matter of law that they
shouldn't have to work in that environment, it's a matter of
Dan Egan writes for the
Post-Register from Idaho Falls,