Yellowstone planners set public meetings on ‘complicated’ but  ‘defensible’ winter-use plan

CODY, WYO. — Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said Thursday that he believes the park’s newly released draft winter-use planis “complicated,” but also “incredibly defensible,” and that it will lead to a quieter, cleaner winter experience for visitors.

A collared elk is wary, but appears relatively undisturbed by passing snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

Answering questions during a conference call with reporters, Wenk said the plan represents an important departure in thinking about how to measure and manage the effects of winter visitation in the park. But “only time will tell,” he said, how the plan fares in federal court, as well as the court of public opinion. The plan seeks to move away from specific numerical limits for individual snowmobiles and snow coaches, focusing instead on addressing the effects of traffic clusters as they move through the park.

If the plan survives expected court challenges — the last decade has seen constant legal wrangling over snowmobiles in the park — it will take effect in 2014, after a two-year transition period that follows current rules.

Wenk and park planners will be discussing the plan later this month during public meetings in gateway communities around the park.

On Thursday, some questions from reporters focused on how the plan uses a complex new approach of “transportation events” to govern vehicle traffic.

Yellowstone National Park map

“We’ve tried simple, and simple doesn’t work,” Wenk said of the ongoing dispute over fixed limits on winter traffic. “This is complicated, but we think complicated will work.”

The current plan allows up to 318 snowmobiles and 78 snow coaches daily, while the proposed plan would impose a daily a limit of 110 total “transportation events” entering the park, with no more than 50 daily transportation events involving snowmobiles. A transportation event would be either one snow coach or an average of seven snowmobiles in a group. While that could mean a theoretical total of  480 snowmobiles in the park at once under the new plan, the average maximum daily use would be about 342.

Everyday numbers are likely to be significantly lower, as last winter saw an average of less than 200 snowmobiles and 40 snow coaches each day.

Reframing the debate

Wenk and Yellowstone planners are seeking to reframe the debate from counting snowmobiles to focusing on mitigating winter vehicle noise, air pollution and disturbances to wildlife. By grouping travelers into clusters, they say, the new plan can address those concerns while also allowing for increased visitation.

Early reaction to the plan has been mixed, with some snowmobile advocates saying they are pleased to see sleds still allowed in the park, while some environmental groups have expressed concern that sound and emissions levels could potentially be higher under certain circumstances in the new plan.

The draft plan calls for Sylvan Pass to remain open and to be managed as in recent years based on an agreement worked out between park officials and groups from Cody, Wyo. and elsewhere. The 8,524-foot pass between the East Gate and Fishing Bridge is prone to avalanches, and park workers use a howitzer canon to mitigate that risk.

Oversnow Vehicle Related Incidents between 2002-2010

The cost of that effort is just under $125,000 annually, according to planning documents, a figure much lower than some earlier estimates ranging up to $350,000. The lower figure was reached after  a re-examination of costs that excluded East Gate and Lake area operations not specifically associated with avalanche management, Wenk said.

With only 110 people entering the park by Sylvan Pass last winter, Wenk said the cost was justified “because Yellowstone is an incredible place to visit in winter,” and that while managing Sylvan Pass is costly, “there are costs of other entrances as well.”

The chance for visitors to enter without hiring a commercial guide may boost traffic over Sylvan Pass and at other entrances, as the draft plan allows for one unpaid guide to lead up to four people each day from each entrance.

Guides will have to be certified under a program yet to be developed, and those riding with the guide will have to pass a visitor education course as well. An online lottery system will be used to let unpaid guides reserve up to two travel dates per season for a $10 fee each time.

Best technology

Unpaid and commercial guides, along with their riders, must use best-available technology snowmobiles under the new plan, phasing in tougher sound and emissions standards by 2017.

Wenk said that snowmobile manufacturers had been making quieter, cleaner machines up until about 2006, but that since then, they have been making louder, dirtier sleds. Though the industry hasn’t yet made a machine that will meet the 2017 standards, Wenk said the best current technology “comes very close” and should be able to close the gap by then.

“We are asking the industry to deliver on the promises they made in 2004 and ’05,” he said.

Sound map of Yellowstone

All snow coaches will be required by 2017 to meet EPA tier 2 emissions requirements, an industry wide regulatory standard applied to new car, light truck and SUV production in recent years.

While the park’s BAT standard will make for cleaner and quieter snow coach rides, it won’t be cheap for some concessioners to make the necessary upgrades. Planning documents state that about a dozen newer machines in the current fleet of 78 snow coaches serving Yellowstone would meet the new standards, but most would not. Upgrades would cost an estimated $35,000-$165,000 per vehicle for a total estimated cost of more than $1.7 million to make the entire fleet compliant.

The plan also calls for adaptive management guidelines that will allow planners to make adjustments as necessary if, for instance, new technologies produce significantly quieter and cleaner snowmobiles. Wenk said the National Park Service will be seeking input on those adaptive management guidelines, as well as other portions of the plan that must be more fully developed before it takes effect in 2014.

The Park Service will receive public comments on the draft plan until Aug. 20, and will release a final plan in September. The Park Service intends to have a final supplemental environmental impact statement, including a Record of Decision and a long-term regulation, in place in time to govern the start of the 2012-2013 winter season.

Public meetings are scheduled in gateway communities around the park later this month. They will include an open house portion, a presentation by park staffers and a question-and-answer period.

If you go…

Yellowstone Park planners will host public meetings from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in each of these gateway towns:

  • Monday, July 16 in Jackson, Wyo. at The Virginian Lodge and Convention Center, 750 W. Broadway.
  • Tuesday, July 17 in West Yellowstone, Mont. at the Holiday Inn, 315 Yellowstone Ave.
  • Wednesday, July 18 in Bozeman, Mont. at the Wingate by Wyndham, 2305 Catron St.
  • Thursday, July 19 in Cody, Wyo. at the Holiday Inn, 1701 Sheridan Ave.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or

Banner photo by Al Bartos/Flickr.

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  1. Why does the National Park Service make such a big deal over wintertime noise and totally ignore summertime noise? They have a decibel goal for snowmobiles – it’s time to apply it to Harleys and noisy diesel vehicles. One Harley with open pipes makes as much noise as 10 cars with factory exhaust systems. Anywhere within 2 miles of any paved park road you can always hear them blubbering by. It’s not right.

  2. Despite the decade plus of Yellowstone Winter Use plans, the important needs of nonmotorized winter visitors have been poorly considered. This new supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement fails to address this long avoided issue.

    Appropriate nonmotorized enhancements like better cross-country ski trails are important for Yellowstone National Park and its visitors. It is well within the purpose and need of the plan “…to establish a management framework that allows the public to experience the unique winter resources and values at Yellowstone National Park” and current management policies.

    The public should call on the park to include enhanced actions to better support cross-country skiing, walking, and snowshoeing. Further, the plan should allow real consideration of snow-bicycle use in Yellowstone, perhaps tested under adaptive management options or included in supplemental planning as part of the Winter Use decision.