The new rule for winter use in Yellowstone has pleased snowmobile enthusiasts and environmental groups. (Wyofile/Kelsey Dayton)

Yellowstone finally has a winter use plan that satisfies environmental and business stakeholders

— October 22, 2013

Clyde Seely began working as a “laundry boy” at the Three Bear Lodge in West Yellowstone, Mont., when he was 19 years old.

Kelsey Dayton

He bought the business in 1971 and after a fire destroyed it. He rebuilt it and bought several snowmobiles and began guiding trips in the park the first winter when roads were groomed over for snow vehicles. It was a small operation until, suddenly, everyone wanted a trip into Yellowstone by snowmobile in the winter. At one point he owned 260 snowmobiles that he rented (people also rented machines to go in areas outside the park). According to the park service’s website, in the winter of 1992-1993 about 90,000 people visited Yellowstone on snowmobile.

In 1997 the lawsuits started. It seemed one after another. And while Seely agreed that some controls were needed for the park, he worried it might become so regulated it would cripple his business. It seemed the only thing snowmobile enthusiasts and environmentalists could agree on was that Yellowstone was a magical place to visit in the winter.

On Tuesday Yellowstone National Park published a final rule to guide winter use of snowmobiles and snowcoaches in the park. It is an agreement both snowmobile enthusiasts and environmentalists seem satisfied with — a source of relief that the years of debate and uncertainty are behind the major stakeholders of the park.

“We’ve been dealing with this for a long time,” Seely said.

Coming to an agreement on managing winter use in Yellowstone took 15 years, cost more than $10 million and involved five environmental impact statements and more than 1 million public comments.

Starting in winter 2014-2015 the park will no longer mange winter travel with a fixed number of over-snow vehicles allotted each day, but instead will use a flexible concept managing vehicles by transportation events. A transportation event is defined as one snowcoach, or a group of up to 10 snowmobiles, averaging seven for the season. The park will allow 110 transportation events per day, but it must be split 60 for snowcoaches and 50 for snowmobiles. The average for the season must be 350 snowmobiles a day or less.

Yellowstone’s Soda Butte in the winter. (R Robinson, courtesy Yellowstone National Park — click to view)
Yellowstone’s Soda Butte in the winter. (R Robinson, courtesy Yellowstone National Park — click to view)

The rule also calls for use of best available technology standards for snowmobiles by the 2015-2016 season and for snowcoaches the following winter. Machines allowed in the park will need to meet performance standards based on sound and emission levels. Commercial tour operators can use their allocated transportation events for snowmobiles and snowcoaches how they want to meet their business’s needs, as long as no more than 50 of the authorized 110 daily transportation events are snowmobile events. Concessionaires will be expected to offer both snowmobile and snowcoach trips.

The plan also allows one non-commercially guided group of up to five snowmobiles to enter through each park entrance daily and continues use of the East Entrance road over Sylvan Pass.

This winter will act as a transition year with the same rules as the last four winters in place. That means 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches will be allowed in the park daily. The transition year will allow for the park to award concession contracts and for operators to prepare for the new rule.

Park staff wanted a rule that would protect the park’s resources and values, based on sound science, said Dan Wenk, park superintendent, in a teleconference Tuesday afternoon. Jack Welch, special projects consultant for the BlueRibbon Coalition, said he appreciated the flexibility the plan provides operators, and also that it allows for some non-guided trips in the park. “It’s a breakthrough,” he said.

The Park Service will allocate private trip permits by lottery. It also will create a training program that a trip leader must complete before a private party can go into the park.

While Welch said he thought, overall, the plan is a reasonable compromise and that he is glad to have a rule in place, he does have concerns about requiring snowmobiles to use the best available technology by 2016. That puts a lot of pressure on outfitters, he said. But it’s a concession he’s willing to live with to have the rule in place and no longer debated. “I think this plan is going to stick,” he said.

Environmental groups agreed. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is satisfied the plan balances allowing winter use in the park, while protecting wildlife and air quality, said Scott Christensen, conservation director for the group. “This plan, while not perfect, does strike a good balance,” he said.

One of the most important pieces of the plan is the piece most snowmobilers like least — the accelerated implementation of best available technology standards, Christensen said. Requiring best available technology in by 2016-2017 is something the group requested of the park service and will reduce air pollution, he said.

He also likes the incentives for cleaner and quieter snowmobiles and snowcoaches built into the rule. Operators that use cleaner machines and reach certain standards can increase the yearly average of snowmobile transportation events from seven to eight.

The plan shows the park service’s commitment to science and is cause for celebration. “We’re a long ways from when park rangers had to wear gas masks and wildlife were chased down the road,” he said.

Mark Menlove, executive director with the Winter Wildlands Alliance was skeptical of the transportation events at first. He worried peak days would allow more total snowmobiles. But seeing the plan the park service came up with, he feels it strikes a balance in protecting the park resources and allowing for visitors to experience the park in different ways — by snowmobile, snowcoach, or snowshoe or skis.

But mostly Menlove is excited to have a final rule in place. The issue predates the formation of Winter Wildlands, and many staff worked on the issue before the organization was founded. “We really like the fact that is a final rule,” he said. “We’re happy to have it done.”

As for Seely, who already runs snowcoach and snowmobile tours, he is worried about the rush on meeting the standards for best technology. He will have to buy new machines, but he likes the flexibility allowing him to run more snowmobiles during the peak season, augmented by fewer during slow times. He does wish there was room to increase snowmobile tours, which he says are far more popular, if he decreased his snowcoach trips. But it’s a plan he can live with.

“I still believe that the park is under-utilized in the winter time,” he said. “However, this plan … is the most workable, the most flexible, fairest plan that has been presented in the last quite a few years.”

The rule is expected to last 15 to 20 years. The park service will begin working on concession contracts, awarding those in the late spring and early summer.

“We are going to structure the contracts so that all operators that will be selected will be required to have both snowmobile and snowcoach opportunities in their contract,” Wenk said. That will impact some tour providers. Currently some snowmobile tour operators, including one operating at the East Entrance, don’t offer snowcoaches, Wenk said

Park managers will also create an Adaptive Management Program. They are hosting a public meeting from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 22, in Bozeman, Mont. More information can be found here.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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