Parks rev up to ban snowmobiles

Yellowstone, Grand Teton could be snowmobile-free by 2002-03

  • Snowmobiles out for a ride through Yellowstone

    John Brecher photo

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - The scene was one of primordial beauty. Shaggy bison brushed aside a blanket of snow to paw at buried forage. Elk grazed for a winter meal in the mist of bubbling hot pots and fumaroles.

The sound track, however, was the whine of snowmobile engines as President's Day weekend visitors toured the first national park on rental "sleds." A hazy smog lingered at the gate most of the day as 3,681 snowmobilers zoomed through.

Just three weeks later, on March 13, park officials announced that snowmobiles will likely be banned from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks beginning in the winter of 2002-03. Snowcoaches, vans on caterpillar tracks, will be the only motorized travel allowed. The announcement followed the Environmental Protection Agency's comments in February that a snowmobile ban was the only way to clean up the park's air (HCN, 3/13/00: EPA sets sights on snowmobiles).

Representatives of local governments who had been working with the Park Service on its winter-use plan had proposed an option allowing snowmobiling to continue. The Park Service had offered a plan that would phase in nonpolluting snowmobiles over 10 years.

But neither option appears to have resolved the parks' legal obligations to maintain a clean environment, said Teton Assistant Superintendent Steve Iobst. Those obligations begin with the law creating the nation's first park and extend to the Clean Air Act. "These state there can be no degradation of park values or resources," he said. "There are a variety of constraints that we cannot ignore, regardless of when they are dated."

The honeymoon's over

Local people who had been meeting regularly with park staffers reacted with shock and fury to the announcement, which came down from Don Barry, an undersecretary in the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. The local planning process will continue, but some question its value.

"I have to re-evaluate if it's worth throwing any more money into this process," said Teton County Commission Chairman Bill Paddleford. "It's not 'we' anymore - it's 'the undersecretary.' "

The move will devastate the winter economy in the greater Yellowstone area, said Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Steve Duerr. Snowmobile outfitting in Jackson Hole brings in $1.3 million annually. Last year, outfitters took 1,395 commercial snowmobile trips and 8,189 people through the south entrance.

In West Yellowstone, the gateway to Old Faithful geyser, 20 percent of the town's total resort taxes are collected during the winter season. Park officials estimate that winter visitors to Yellowstone spend $60 million annually in towns and counties surrounding the park.

Wyoming Sens. Craig Thomas and Mike Enzi said the Park Service was caving in to Washington bureaucrats. "Sen. Thomas doesn't deny there should be changes, but there are other options that should be looked at to meet the needs of the laws," said Dan Kunsman, a spokesman for Thomas. "They are hiding behind the laws in a draconian-type of approach."

Environmentalists rallied behind the Park Service. "Long-lasting air and noise pollution in national parks is unacceptable," said Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance program director Pam Lichtman. "We are finally moving in the right direction and we are making protection of the park resources a priority."

Marv Jensen, the assistant superintendent for Yellowstone, said a final winter-use plan should be out by Nov. 1. "This is not a decision, not anything definitive," Jensen said. "This is the analysis to date. This is the direction we are leaning."

The author reports for the Jackson Hole News.


  • Steve Iobst with Grand Teton National Park, 307/739-3415;
  • Pam Lichtman with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, 307/733-9417;
  • Steve Duerr with the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, 307/733-3316.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Rachel Odell

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