A conflict of values

  • Former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton while touring Yellowstone by snowmobile.

    Jim Peaco, National Park Service

Yellowstone and the Snowmobile: Locking Horns over National Park Use
Michael J. Yochim
328 pages, hardcover: $34.95.
University Press of Kansas, 2009.

Even as another winter recedes, Mike Yochim's new book on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park will remain in season. It's an instant classic -- the first comprehensive examination of a notorious nationwide controversy, packed with facts and performed without hysteria. It's also well and vividly written, and illustrated with photos and maps.

Yochim, a Yellowstone planner whose experience in the park spans 20 years, begins with his favorite cross-country ski route, a daylong risky expedition over snow-drifted mountains to a magical basin, where hot springs keep mosses and bentgrass green despite subzero air temperatures. Then he describes how the experience changed as snowmobile traffic in the park increased during the 1990s: "One cold day in February ... I heard something foreign: the faint whine of snowmobiles (more than five miles away). ... Even though it was barely audible ... my ears focused upon it, amplifying it ... Yellowstone (had turned into) a racetrack with pretty scenery."

His perspective isn't necessarily that of the anti-snowmobile, conservationist camp, though. He describes "a conflict between ... two sets of fundamental American values." Conservationists worship "the American Nature Religion," viewing Yellowstone Park as "sacred, with snowmobiles equivalent to machines in the garden (of Eden)." Meanwhile, snowmobilers see their machines "as the winter equivalent of ... individualism and freedom ... (and even) the Protestant work ethic" as embodied by intrepid snowmobile business folk.

The author explores every aspect of the controversy, from the machines' history to their noise and air pollution, impacts on wildlife, the local economies and the power of distant snowmobile manufacturers. He brings to life the various interest groups with their dueling lawsuits, and the park managers, courtroom judges and politicians.

And he reaches a provocative conclusion: He thinks Yellowstone should plow its roads in winter and bring in tourists on buses. That would reduce the impacts of winter tourism, he says, and make the price more affordable. Both conservationists and snowmobilers tend to oppose that option, but according to Yochim, most park staffers and local people quietly favor it. In Yochim's hands, the Yellowstone snowmobile situation becomes a classic example of how controversies develop on all public lands. And he reminds us how often the possible solutions are obscured by the loudest voices.

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