Snowmobiles are the people’s choice for Yellowstone

  The Bush administration’s decision to upset the ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park has been met, as expected, with howls of outrage from both environmentalists and a lot of the media. After the millions of grant dollars spent lobbying and litigating to ban snowmobiles, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other environmental groups should be howling. As for the press, well, there’s probably nothing that upsets editorial boards more than being ignored.

But like a lot of folks in Yellowstone’s visitor-dependent gateway towns, which have built their winter economies around snow machines, I say, let ‘em scream, and thank you, Mr. President. Environmentalists first held up the bison as a reason for closing the Yellowstone Park to sleds, claiming that easy footing on snow roads allowed too many bison to survive the winters or walk out of the park, which was fatal. Then the spin changed. The poor bison were being stressed by the mean and noisy snowmobiles. However, stress studies on game species show that wild animals are stressed most by humans on two legs and not by politically incorrect motorbikes, cars or snowmachines.

In its environmental impact statement, the National Park Service tried vigorously to sell the ban, claiming that going to snowcoaches for groups would give "low-income" visitors greater opportunities to visit Yellowstone in winter. The trouble with that argument is that Yellowstone isn’t a neighborhood park, and it takes more than a bus token to get there. For a "low-income" family of four from Los Angeles, the round trip of 32 hours and three transfers on Greyhound to its bus station in Livingston, Mont., is $552.

A snowcoach ride isn’t exactly low-income either. The cheapest per-seat fare for a snowcoach I found on the Net is $79, plus the entrance fee. That’s a cool $360, and never mind motels, food, film and the rest. Does a week at Mammoth, $749 double occupancy and kiddie cots extra, sound like a low-income opportunity?

Next, look at how the Clinton administration sought to deal with congestion,wildlife conflicts and pollution from snowmachines, all legitimate concerns. The obvious solution to overuse, as well as to traffic jams at the gates, is a system of reservations or pre-sold passes. Any airline traveler (at least before 9/11) knows how efficient planning ahead can be.

The solution to the problem of Park Service staff having to breathe snowmobile exhaust at the park gate is obvious to any American who drives tollways. Freeway tollbooths have positive-pressure venting systems that force clean, filtered air into the booth. Modifications might have cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars. The work could have been done between the end of the summer season and snowfall.

As for wildlife conflicts, first-time visitors on snowmobiles should be required to hire a guide; those caught harassing wildlife in the park should have their sled confiscated. As for snowmobile exhaust itself, the industry says it is close to a clean solution. In the next few years, there will be enough four-cycle sleds for rent to serve everyone. And if speeding is still perceived as a problem, rental sleds for the park could be equipped with speed governors.

These solutions are reasonable. Instead, Yellowstone Park Superintendent Mike Finley steadfastly refused to consider any of them, insisting until the bitter end not to pre-ticket, not to require guides for newby tourists and not to install ventilation. He allowed the problems to fester.

A clue as to why Finley took such a hard line is contained in his retirement speech to members of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Finley pronounced the Bush administration "determined to let the moneychangers into the temple" of Yellowstone. The "moneychangers," if you think about it, are the small business owners and motel-keepers in the "temple’s" gateway towns.

Finley, as it turns out, is still on the scene. He is president of Ted Turner’s foundation, one of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s long-standing funders. The Yellowstone ban proposal was never really about the environment. It wasn’t even about politics, since politics is supposed to be about finding reasonable compromise. The ban was an extremist snow job where its proponents gave up nothing but instead got exclusive winter access to Yellowstone at the expense of not only park-dependent communities and businesses, but also the rest of America. It is heartening to see the Bush administration turn the situation around.

Dave Skinner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is a freelance writer in Whitefish, Montana.

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