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October 06, 2011 9:51 am

Yellowstone delays new winter use plan

Written by CJ Baker

Winter visitors to Yellowstone National Park take in the sights from a snowcoach operated by park concessionaire Xanterra in this file photo. The National Park Service recently announced it’s going to take more time to address problems the public spotted in the plan. Winter visitors to Yellowstone National Park take in the sights from a snowcoach operated by park concessionaire Xanterra in this file photo. The National Park Service recently announced it’s going to take more time to address problems the public spotted in the plan. Courtesy photo/Xanterra Parks and Resorts

Recent limits to stay in place for coming season

Yellowstone National Park officials say the public had valid criticisms of its proposed plan for winter use in the park, and they’re taking more time to address those flaws in the plan.

“The public comment period did exactly what we hope a public comment period would do in a process like this,” Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a conference call with reporters last week.

The National Park Service had hoped to finalize a new winter use plan before the start of the coming season (Dec. 15), but officials announced Thursday, Sept. 29, they now will shoot for having the plan finalized before the 2012-2013 winter season.

“This has been a very long, arduous process that’s been expensive and that’s part of my rationale for trying to make sure that we get this right,” Wenk said of the delay.

Advocates of both greater winter use and more limited winter use praised the decision to wait.

Some 59,000 pieces of correspondence — 56,462 of them from 17 different form letters — were submitted on the National Park Service’s proposed plan.

As the Park Service planned all along, this coming winter will have the same daily caps (318 snowmobiles and 78 coaches) and restrictions (clean and quiet snowmobiles led by a commercial guide, etc.) as the past two seasons.

It’s less clear what rules will be in effect by December 2012; the Park Service essentially is re-examining all the key aspects of the plan they proposed this spring.

Some of the issues Wenk said will be looked at again had been criticized by environmental groups and others opposed to snowmobiling in the park. Other parts had been criticized by the state of Wyoming, Park County and snowmobile advocates.

• Setting variable daily limits for snowmobiles

People on both sides of the divisive issue criticized the distinguishing feature of the Park Service’s new draft plan — variable daily limits — as too confusing.

In its preferred alternative laid out in the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Park Service had proposed allowing as few as 110 snowmobiles and 30 snowcoaches or as many as 330 sleds and 80 coaches on a given day. The schedule would be laid out a year in advance with each day’s limits and would allow visitors to choose a busier or quieter day to visit, the Park Service had said.

Wenk said the varying limits was one of the most-commented items, and he indicated it didn’t prove popular.

“I think there was a lot of question about how workable it was, how it could work and why we were studying these limits,” he said.

Other parts of the draft plan getting a second look include:

• Keeping Sylvan Pass open through the winter

The Park Service had proposed to continue allowing over-snow access over Sylvan Pass. Wenk said the safety of avalanche operations and potential impacts to wildlife will now be re-examined. Environmental groups had made a big push in their comments to shut down the pass, citing high cost, low use and safety concerns. Park County commissioners and other advocates for keeping the route open say it’s safe, and the low use is due to the weak economy and changing park regulations.

• Requiring all snowmobilers to be led by a commercial guide

Wenk said the Park Service needs to look at the concept of noncommercial guiding — that is, allowing snowmobilers to be led by someone who isn’t employed by a concessionaire. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s office had put together a proposal for noncommercial guiding, backed by Park County commissioners and snowmobile advocates. In the draft plan, Wenk said the Park Service had looked only at the impacts of guided versus unguided snowmobiling.

Other things that will be re-examined include a potentially too-restrictive requirement that all snowmobiles and snowcoaches enter the park by 10:30 a.m., incorrect air quality modeling and sound modeling that can be done done better, Wenk said.

The superintendent noted that the Park Service’s three previous Environmental Impact Statements were thrown out by the courts.

“It’s my belief that without a further analysis ... that we would not have a sustainable decision in this case, either,” he said.

The more detailed evaluation could lead the Park Service to change its preferred plan or bring it back to the same conclusions.

For example, when a reporter asked about the future of Sylvan Pass, Wenk wouldn’t speculate on what would come from the the second look.

“I’m not saying that we’re going to change that (daily limits) and I’m not saying we won’t change that,” he said.

More than $10 million has been spent on winter use planning since the late 1990s, Wenk said.

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