The Yellowstone Business Partnership held its annual conference at the Jackson Lake Lodge recently to tackle the sticky issue of winter use in Yellowstone National Park. This is not a new issue, of course. In fact, to most Wyomingites, it’s such an old issue that many have trouble engaging it. At the Tuesday May 25 session, however, people were engaged.
Perhaps it was the fact that only the day before snow fell steadily at the southern end of Yellowstone. Perhaps it was the conference theme, “Re-envisioning Winter,” and the diverse group of panelists sitting at the same table – the National Park Service, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a snow coach concessioner, a snow-mobile organization, an outdoor recreation group – that gave participants a sense that this would be a different conversation about the same old topic.
And it was different. Despite speakers admitting to being nervous not knowing what reception they’d receive on this touchy topic, there was a strong sense of collaboration and congeniality in the room.
This is a group in search of solutions. The Yellowstone Business Partnership’s mission sets it apart from other regional groups: its purpose is to bring businesses in the 27-county area around the two national parks together to find collaborative solutions to the most complex and thorny issues.
What’s unique is twofold: first, Yellowstone Business Partnership (YBP) has a distinctly business focus; second, it takes a cross-boundary view of the region. Recognizing that state lines, county borders and political jurisdictions can complicate decision-making, the group takes the astronaut’s view, seeking collaboration that rises above these lines that are meaningless to wildlife and ecosystems.
YBP recognizes that it is precisely these ecosystems that draw people and their businesses to the Greater Yellowstone, and that it’s incumbent upon us to preserve what is unique about this region while also building healthy communities and economies – the triple bottom line of people, place and profit.
Gary Ferguson, a Montana author who gave one of the most thought-provoking opening speeches I’ve heard in a long while, bolstered the audience, saying that “the business community can be the most powerful force for conservation in this country.” YBP is aiming to make this so.
Panelist, David Jacob, from the National Park Service, set the traditional stage for the conversation, stating that the agency’s Organic Act sets us up for a conflict between “use and enjoyment” and preservation when it comes to winter use in Yellowstone. “It’s all about allowing a level of use while protecting our resources,” he said. But exactly what level and what constitutes protecting are the age-old questions.
In the most recent wave of public comment on the Park’s winter use plan, YBP offered an idea. According to Jan Brown, YBP director, the organization’s research on seasonality shows that the way Yellowstone has been managed has not supported the well being of economies in the region (for example, the parks close in the spring and fall) and that over-the-snow transportation may not best serve the triple bottom line.
YBP is encouraging the park to consider a solution that combines partial plowing at the northern end with linkage to public transportation (another YBP initiative) to create more affordable and environmentally beneficial opportunities for off-season visitation.
Plowing isn’t a new concept in the winter use debate. The Park has included it in several of the numerous Environmental Impact Statements considered in the past couple of decades. But what is new is YBP’s concept of limited plowing in combination with new alternatives for public transportation that didn’t exist ten, five, or even two years ago, and the improvement in technology to address questions of emissions and sound impact.
The concept needs vetting, but perhaps YBP can bring fresh energy and a different angle to the conversation that will shift the debate just enough to generate new possibilities.
Jennifer Lamb is Director of Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander. She also serves on the board of the Yellowstone Business Partnership. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.