The new wrinkle in the latest winter use plan, released by the National Park Service this month, is managing for “transportation events” instead of caps on daily snowmobile and snowcoach travel in Yellowstone.
“We have been training the people who are interested in winter use in Yellowstone to think about winter use in Yellowstone in absolute numbers — of numbers of snowmobiles, or numbers of snowcoaches,” said Park Superintendent Dan Wenk in a conference call with reporters last Thursday. “This different way of thinking about it is basically saying, ‘We are going to think about Yellowstone and winter use on impacts to the resource.’”
Ever since 2003, when the Park Service began limiting daily admissions of snowmobiles and snowcoaches, managers have done so based on hard caps on numbers. For example, for the past three winters, up to 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches have been allowed into Yellowstone each day.
Under the proposed new plan, the 318/78 limit would stay in effect for the next two seasons. But starting in the winter of 2014-15, park managers would begin limiting access based not on the number of snowmobiles or snowcoaches, but on how many times Yellowstone is disturbed.
The draft plan would allow up to 110 daily transportation events, with an event consisting of either one snowcoach or a group of 10 snowmobiles. The East Entrance would be allowed three groups of commercially-guided snowmobilers, one group of up to five snowmobilers led by a non-commercial guide and two snowcoaches.
There’s no easy way to directly compare the new plan to the past limits, but in a nutshell, the proposal would provide greater flexibility and the potential for some growth in visitation while also imposing new restrictions to make the park quieter and cleaner overall.
Under the plan that’s been in place for the past few years, peak days have seen more than 90 total transportation events, Wenk said. Assuming an average group size of seven snowmobiles, the current rules allow for a peak of 123 so-called “transportation events,” though there could be more if there were smaller groups.
Wenk said the new plan not only limits the potential amount of impacts on the park, it’s also just a more accurate way of setting the limits.
The draft plan does cap daily snowmobile entrances at 480 sleds. The math behind that figure gets a little complicated: the plan says no more than 50 of a day’s transportation events can be a group of snowmobiles and four of the 50 events must be reserved for the five-member non-commercial groups.
Here’s where it gets a little more complicated: while a snowmobile group can be as large as 10 sleds on a given day, over the course of a season, the average group can’t be larger than seven sleds. That breaks out to a seasonal cap of an average of no more than 342 snowmobiles a day. Wenk noted that historically, snowmobilers have generally averaged seven per group and said the Park Service would keep tabs on operators to ensure they don’t exceed the average.
Potential snowcoach admissions would vary based on the number of snowmobiles, theoretically ranging from a limit of as few as 60 coaches in a given day to as many as 106 if no one was hiring a snowmobile guide that day.
“I’m sorry this gets confusing, but we’ve tried simple; simple hasn’t worked,” Wenk said last week as he walked reporters through the numbers. “This is complicated, but we think complicated will work.”
It’s the seventh environmental document the Park Service has written about winter use, with three previous plans having been voided in federal court for allowing too many or too few snowmobiles.
Conservation groups have long pushed for a phase-out of snowmobiles altogether in favor of only snowcoaches, while the Park Service has contended that the impacts from a snowcoach really aren’t that different from that of a group of snowmobiles. Wenk reiterated that point last week.
In 2017-18, new restrictions would take effect requiring cleaner and quieter technology in snowcoaches. Limits on sleds would grow even more stringent.
“We are basically asking the (snowmobile) industry to deliver on the promises that they made in 2004 and 2005, where they said they would continue to get quieter and cleaner. In fact, they haven’t since 2006, and we’re saying they need to go back and make the machines quieter and cleaner,” Wenk said of new limits on decibels and carbon monoxide. If snowmobile and snowcoach noise and emissions decrease even further, the park would potentially allow more of them to enter Yellowstone each day.
The wintertime speed limit would drop from 45 mph to 35 mph under the proposed new plan.
Some of the specifics will have to be worked out down the road, such as exactly how the non-commercial guiding will work. It’s an option that’s long been sought by the Park County Commission, the state of Wyoming and snowmobiling advocates as a less-expensive way for experienced locals to travel the park than having to hire a commercial guide. That option hadn’t been in the preferred plan released last year.
“All the data that we have, the information we have says there is a marked difference between unguided and guided, but there is no indication there’s a difference between commercially guided and non-commercially guided,” Wenk said of the change. The unpaid guides and the members of their group would have to go through training before being allowed in Yellowstone.
The plan also calls for Sylvan Pass and the East Entrance to remain open during the winter, a top concern of commissioners and the state. The Park Service had been reconsidering whether to close the pass due to cost or safety.
“How does it makes financial sense in these tough times when we’re borrowing money from China to keep the doors open on the federal government to spend $1,150 per visitor to keep that pass open?” asked an Associated Press reporter during the call, referring to the $125,000 cost of keeping Sylvan open and the 110 snowmobilers who crossed the pass last winter.
“I would say it makes sense because Yellowstone’s an incredible place to visit in the winter,” said Wenk. “One hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money, and if you break it down to cost per visitor, it’s higher than the other entrances, but if you look at the interior of the park, it’s not zero to $125,000. There are costs for the other entrances of the park as well.”
Wenk also noted that there’s an opportunity for the public to comment and suggest changes to the plan between now and Aug. 20.
Park managers will be in Cody next week to present information on the new plan and take questions and comments from the public. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 19, at the Holiday Inn.
“We’re always willing to listen to the public,” said Wenk, though he gave a reminder during the call that “it’s not a vote.”