Yellowstone's last stampede

  • HOWLING PACK: Snowmobiles pass one by one through theentrance station at West Yellowstone

    Karen Nichols

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - Every morning, Kitty Enboe dons her thick, green National Park Service uniform and breathes thick, green National Park Service air. As an entrance station attendant in this town snuggled up to Yellowstone's western border, Enboe occupies ground zero in the fight over snowmobiles in America's oldest and finest national park.

On these subzero mornings, snowmobile exhaust hangs like a petrochemical sea fog. Enboe calls it "the green cloud." On a busy Saturday, some 1,300 snowmobilers pause to show an entrance pass before charging into Yellowstone Park, each machine coughing up as much pollution as 50 automobiles. The noise sometimes rattles the glass in Enboe's booth. The smell penetrates her clothes. Settled particulate makes the snow grubby.

Enboe and other entrance workers suffer sore eyes and throats, throbbing heads and nausea from the filthy air.

"On busy days, all of us get the symptoms. You just can't avoid it," Enboe says. "It's just a matter of how bad."

Back in town, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce sees a different shade of green: the same green produced by the the Imax theater offering Michael Jordan on a 60-foot screen, the Yellowstone Motorhed curio shop selling Harley-Davidson trinkets, and the grizzly bear exhibited at the local zoo, fed all winter to keep it awake.

March marks the end of the 2001 Yellowstone winter season and the beginning of a new era. Under new National Park Service rules, snowmobiles will be banned in Yellowstone by 2003 and replaced with modified buses called snow coaches.

Enboe may breathe easier, but the snowmobile crowd isn't going down without a fight. Truck bumpers in West Yellowstone bear stickers that say "Snowmobilers for Bush." Owners expect relief from the new rules with a Republican in the White House. In Congress, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., has already introduced legislation that would weave a path around the new regulations. Following that cue, Polaris introduced a "quieter and cleaner" four-stroke snowmobile model for Yellowstone, joining Arctic Cat.

I went to West Yellowstone to see what the fuss was about.

Don't knock it 'til you've tried it

West Yellowstone was full of extended-cab pickup trucks, towing trailers of snowmobiles from Colorado, Utah, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Their time in Yellowstone running out, the snowmobilers had descended on the town like blackbirds on a grain field at harvest time. Several hundred snowmobiles roamed town, more common on streets than automobiles. The town is only five blocks across, but pedestrians were nowhere to be seen.

It's easy to dehumanize snowmobile riders, hidden and robotic behind bulbous helmets and tinted face masks. But I instantly liked Ed Farnsworth, snowmobiler and West Yellowstone hotel owner. When subzero nights killed my car battery, he spent two hours restarting it. I asked him about the snowmobile ban.

"It will be just devastating for us," Farnsworth said, predicting the loss of 30 percent of his business. "We would just have to shut down in the winter. We would have to get jobs someplace else to support this place."

Farnsworth fiercely criticized the National Park Service for not giving the industry time to develop cleaner, quieter machines.

I was raised a cross-country skier, a Democrat and a Lutheran. Renting a snowmobile runs against my grain, like listening to Rush Limbaugh or kissing the pope's ring. But the playground adage, "don't knock it 'til you've tried it" rang in my head. So Karen and I rented one of the new four-stroke Arctic Cat "Yellowstone Specials." I winced when I signed the credit card receipt: Two days' rental cost more than my new skis, and I figure the skis will last 10 years. The machine's sticker price is $15,000, roughly double the price of a typical sled.

Most serious riders, however, would balk not at the expense, but at the machine's lack of hill-climbing torque. We were assured the machine was perfect for touring Yellowstone, so we lashed our skis to the running boards and joined the crowd at Enboe's entrance station.

Here's what we found: Snowmobiling in Yellowstone is a spine-altering experience. The roads are a nearly torturous series of moguls, which batter the machine from below. And these roads were officially in "good" condition. After only a few hours of riding, my teeth hurt, my low back was in agony, and the tendons in my hands were sore from the constant battery. The tourist brochures don't mention anything about that part.

Still, where the road smoothed out a bit, I could see why some folks might enjoy this. Hitting the throttle, we outran our own racket. Karen wrapped her arms around my torso and I remembered being 14, giving my girlfriend a ride on my ten-speed. There was little time to enjoy the scenery, but I did get a bit of an adrenaline buzz from the velocity. In my black helmet, I felt like Darth Vader, zooming over an icy planet.

But no matter how fast or far we went, we couldn't outrun the other snowmobilers. In three days of trying, we did not escape their racket. The engine noise muffled the earthy gurgles of the geysers and hot pots around Old Faithful. When we skied across wolf tracks along the Firehole River, we cocked our ears to listen for them. The only howling packs we heard were mechanical. We stopped to gaze at the haunting beauty of a trumpeter swan, swimming against the steaming current of the Madison River, as snowflakes showered down. But to do so we had to dodge a steady flow of rushing snowmobiles, like city pedestrians trying to cross against a traffic light.

So what's wrong with snowmobiles in Yellowstone? It isn't only the noise and the smell. It isn't just the fact that Yellowstone snowmobilers are accident-prone. (Snowmobiles have killed more people in Yellowstone than have grizzly bears.) And it isn't solely the long-debated impacts of snowmobiles on bison and other wildlife.

It's the carnival atmosphere that comes along with hundreds of zippy little machines. They quickly overshadow nature. The machine becomes the point of the visit. To snowmobile is to out-muscle nature, not enjoy it. Like the Imax theater, the zoo and the Motorhed curio shop, they belong outside the park.

Beyond the battle

West Yellowstone District Ranger Bob Siebert says these are rough days for his staff, as they prepare to enforce the snowmobile ban.

"Things are pretty in-your-face right now," Siebert said. "The business community is cordial, but cold. There are a lot of people around town that I've known for 10 years who won't speak to me."

That, he predicts, will fade. Siebert recalls the ruckus the folks around Alaska's Denali National Park kicked up when that park implemented its shuttle system. Predictions of economic doom did not materialize. Likewise, when the big fires swept through Yellowstone in 1988, the tourist economy didn't go up in smoke as critics predicted. Visitation increased.

West Yellowstone has spent a decade trumpeting itself as The Snowmobile Capital of the World. It welcomes the machines with open arms, giving them free run of city streets. Aside from the 180-miles of trails in Yellowstone, the town also provides access to 600 miles of snowmobile trails on nearby national forests. Most serious snowmobilers we talked to were more interested in "high-marking" and playing on the national forests, than the sedate touring in Yellowstone. These other trails and associated play areas will remain open after Yellowstone bans the machines, while the park's winter visitors may travel by snow coach, ski and snowshoe.

It's not a bad solution. With a little creative marketing, West Yellowstone can still be the Snowmobile Capital of the World. And Yellowstone can still be Yellowstone: the best of the best.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Kalispell, Montana.

Copyright 2001 HCN and Ben Long

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