While I disagree with Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s agenda for Yellowstone National Park, I have to admire her political smarts. She showed great form during her recent snowmobile and snow coach tour of the park this winter.
Secretary Norton charmed reporters with her grit, gamely bouncing through sub-zero temperatures on a three-hour snowmobile excursion, and her wit, as she pointed to rising steam from one of the park’s many geysers and quipped, "It’s not all that different from Washington. I mean, look at all the hot air around here."
But the best example of her political savvy came in the way she stacked the deck in her framing of the debate over snowmobiles in the park. In addition to her snowmobile tour, Norton took a short ride in a snow coach, the other motorized option for getting inside the park. Afterwards, she said to an Associated Press reporter, "This is a much more ordinary kind of experience." Then, with an unenthusiastic shrug, she added, "It’s not as special as a snowmobile."
I am less disturbed by the secretary’s unabashed plug for snowmobiles than I am by the fact that in pitting the struggle as snowmobile vs. snow coach, Norton deftly changed the terms of the debate to exclude Yellowstone’s other major winter constituencies: skiers, snowshoers and other quiet recreationists. Norton would have us believe the only way to experience Yellowstone in winter is with a motor, and that our only choice is which kind.
Long before snowmobiles and snow coaches vied for Yellowstone’s tourist dollars, cross-country skiers and snowshoers were going to the park to enjoy the natural beauty, wintering wildlife and solitude of Yellowstone’s quiet season.
Though the experience has changed, skiers and snowshoers still go to the park. We stay in local motels, eat at local restaurants and happily spend our money supporting Yellowstone’s gateway communities. A lot more of us would visit if we could enjoy Yellowstone free of the noise and pollution Gale Norton and her supporters so wholeheartedly promote. Events such as the annual Rendezvous Ski Race, which last season attracted 826 competitors and hundreds of spectators to West Yellowstone, contribute significantly to the local economy.
The park administration and local businesses are reaching out more than ever to human-powered recreationists. Last season, the park began pulling a grooming sled to lay down track for cross-country skiers. Local businesses offer special promotions to members of organized ski and snowshoe clubs. Human-powered access is also part of the Yellowstone’s winter use plan. But Norton passed up an opportunity to support local businesses and the National Park Service in their efforts to maintain diversity. Instead, she ignored science and overwhelming public opinion, both of which have concluded that snowmobiles are bad for Yellowstone.
Despite the Bush administration’s steadfast endorsement of snowmobiles and their well-funded lobby, the face of Yellowstone’s winter is changing. More and more people are seeking a quiet, harmonious way to enjoy the splendor of a Yellowstone winter.
Snowmobile use is down — off 49 percent last season and another 25 percent so far this season — while snow coach use is up 28 percent this season. Several long-time snowmobile concessionaires have seen the light and invested heavily in snow coaches. And yes, given the choice between the two, skiers and snowshoers would much rather share trails with the cleaner and quieter snow coaches than with lines of snowmobiles. Snowcoaches create less environmental impact, produce less noise and exhaust and put less stress on wildlife. That is why Gale Norton and the Bush administration are on the wrong side of this argument.
But that’s not my point. Any discussion of how best to experience Yellowstone in winter should include not only what’s best for the park but also the range of what’s available to visitors. A motor is not required to experience winter in Yellowstone or, for that matter, the millions of acres of public land across the American Snow Belt.
Touring on skis or snowshoes allows one to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the wildness and magic of winter. It’s healthy. It’s healing. I hope next time Gale Norton visits Yellowstone for a winter photo op, she’ll strap on a pair of skis or snowshoes and experience the park on its own terms, under her own power.
Mark Menlove is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Park City, Utah, where he is an avid backcountry skier and the executive director of Winter Wildlands Alliance, a national organization working to promote and preserve winter wildlands.
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