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March 15, 2011 9:07 am

East Entrance snowmobiling up

Written by CJ Baker

Snowmobile visitation increased this winter season through Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance — shown here in this March 2010 file photo. However, visits remain substantially below where they were a decade ago. Snowmobile visitation increased this winter season through Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance — shown here in this March 2010 file photo. However, visits remain substantially below where they were a decade ago. Tribune file photo by Randal Horobik

Snowmobile visits to Yellowstone through the park’s East Entrance this winter doubled from last year, though recreational visits as a whole dipped slightly, with fewer park skiers.

From Dec. 22 through March 1, a total of 170 snowmobilers went through the east gate, up from 85 the prior winter season, park service data says.

“It was a good year for us. It kept our guide very, very busy,” said Dede Fales, who co-owns Gary Fales Outfitting with her husband. All snowmobilers in Yellowstone must be lead by a commercial guide, and Gary Fales Outfitting is the East Entrance’s only operator.

This year, the Fales hosted a large group of 20 men from Australia and across the United States on a three-day trip.

“That kind of popped our numbers up,” Dede Fales said.

She said the outfitting business also increased its local marketing, drawing folks from Powell, Meeteetse, Cody, Thermopolis and Red Lodge.

This season’s snowmobile visitation was the highest since the 2006-07 season, but still a mere fraction of what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. During those seasons, it was fairly common for the East Entrance to see more than 4,000 snowmobilers per year.

East Entrance advocates blame the decline on increased park restrictions and tighter caps on snowmobiling, the uncertainty created by seemingly endless court battles over winter use in Yellowstone and the up-in-the-air status of Sylvan Pass.

Park officials close the pass when avalanche danger threatens visitor safety, but closures were few this season.

“I don’t think the park being shut affected us at all,” said Fales, saying she found the season’s consistency encouraging.

Sylvan Pass closed four times for park personnel to mitigate unsafe avalanche conditions with explosives deployed from a howitzer.

The closures affected only one day and parts of six others in the 70-day season, an improvement Fales called “amazing,” given the large amount of snow this winter.

Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said avalanche danger is based in large part on its stability.

“Simply because we have more snow doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unstable,” Nash said.

The 2009-10 season had three full and six partial closures, and that was itself far better than prior years. In 2007-08, there were 10 full days of closure and 16 partial closures — meaning nearly one of every three days was closed at least some of the time.

Park officials said a total of 446 visitors (170 snowmobilers, 276 skiers) used the East Entrance through the end of February, compared with 463 visitors during the same period last year. Skiers continue to use the entrance since its closure to motorized travel on the March 1, said Nash.

No snow coach service was offered through the East Entrance this season or last after the previous operator stopped operating. Park officials sought a new snowcoach operator last year, but no company submitted a proposal.

Fales said she doesn’t believe starting a snowcoach service is currently viable, given the needed investment in specialized equipment and the uncertainty of future winter use.

For Fales Outfitting, it’s been untenable to pour tens of thousands of dollars into a large snowmobile fleet not knowing if the business will exist in a year or two.

Ideally, Fales said she would like to get a six or 10-year permit, which would provide the certainty to purchase a large fleet of machines.

In 2007, Pahaska Tepee stopped offering guided snowmobile tours, citing Sylvan’s uncertainty, and in choosing not to offer snowcoach tours in 2008, High Country Adventures cited the uncertainty over winter use.

That’s left the Faleses as the lone operators.

Under current park rules, up to 20 snowmobilers can go into Yellowstone through the East Entrance each day, and the Faleses hold the permit for all 20 of those visitors.

“I don’t think we can singlehandedly make ... Cody a snowmobiling destination spot,” said Fales. However, by continuing to operate, “We’ve made it possible for the pass to be open,” she said.

Next winter, Yellowstone officials plan to manage the park in more or less the same fashion as this year, said Nash. But the winter of 2012-13 is scheduled to be managed under a new winter use plan. It could boost snowmobile numbers, cut them or close Sylvan Pass to over-snow travel altogether.

The Park Service plans to release its preferred plan in a few weeks, Nash said, at which point more public comments will be sought.

“Hopefully we’ll get some good news about the park being open at some point in the next year, but I don’t know,” said Fales.

She said the East Entrance and its climb over Sylvan Pass offer a unique alternative to the park’s other entrances, which she said generally are flat.

“This is a beautiful entrance to go in,” Fales said.

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