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Proposed winter plan for Yellowstone finds favor in Cody

Yellowstone National Park officials say nobody really liked their last proposal for managing winter travel in the park. Their new plan, however, is finding some encouraged — though still wary — local fans.

At a meeting in Cody last week, speakers generally indicated support for the draft plan. Among other things, it would keep Yellowstone’s East Entrance open in the winter, allow a small increase in snowmobile visitation from recent years and let a limited number of folks snowmobile into the park without a paid guide.

“We look at this alternative from the snowmobile point of view. Is it perfect? No, we wanted a lot more, but there’s opportunity here,” said Bert Miller, a leader of the Cody Country Snowmobile Association and Wyoming State Snowmobile Association.

“Hopefully we can move forward and get this alternative working,” Miller said.

While taking issue with some of the details, Park County Commissioner Loren Grosskopf similarly called the plan “definitely a step in the right direction, and I think all of us appreciate the step in the right direction instead of going the other way.”

That sentiment was also echoed by Jerimiah Rieman, a policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead.

“The overarching things (in the draft plan) are certainly things we can support,” Rieman said in an interview with the Tribune at the meeting.

“I’m feeling better than I have at any other meeting,” said Terry Dolan following the gathering. Dolan works as a commercial snowmobile guide for the East Entrance’s lone winter concessionaire, Gary Fales Outfitting of Rimrock Ranch.

“It’s nice to come to a meeting that isn’t threatening to close the pass,” Dolan said during the public comments portion of the meeting, referring to Sylvan Pass which sits just inside the east gate.

However, there still was some unease in the midst of a process that has had plenty of backs and forths in the past decade.

Joel Baum, speaking on behalf of the North Fork guest ranches that make up the East Yellowstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, said despite the draft plan, he was worried the east gate might still be closed in the winter, and he worried that such a closure could affect the summer season opening.

Park Service representatives said that’s an unfounded fear, as the winter management doesn’t affect opening for the summer.

Those with the most discomfort with the plan likely are conservation groups. They had no representatives speak at the meeting, but their influence was felt.

For example, many of the comments from locals at the meeting were that the Park Service’s proposed restrictions on non-commercial snowmobiling were too restrictive. Some targets for feedback were the five-sled limit on groups (commercial groups can have up to 10 sleds), required safety equipment that includes radios, and a rule that everyone in the group go through an online test and on-site orientation check-in.

Yellowstone Management Assistant Wade Vagias candidly told the audience of about 40 people that some restrictions on non-commercial guiding are necessary “in order to make it fly.”

“There’s going to be a community out there that’s going to make an adamant stand that this is not the thing to do for Yellowstone,” Vagias said, apparently referring to the environmental community.

While snowmobiling groups, Park County commissioners and Gov. Matt Mead’s office all have praised the general direction of the plan, it goes against the major talking points of environmental groups.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition has taken the position that all snowmobilers should be led by professional guides to ensure park rules are followed. The National Park Conservation Association and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees have lobbied for the closure of Sylvan Pass on the basis of cost and safety.

Further, environmental groups have long pushed for the Park Service to ban snowmobiles in favor of only snowcoaches.

“The National Park Service should make an immediate U-turn on this misguided policy. After all, the growing majority of Yellowstone Park’s visitors prefer multi-passenger snow coaches, which are demonstrably cleaner than snowmobiles, which are getting dirtier. Even park officials have acknowledged that,” said Chuck Clusen, director of National Park Project at Natural Resources Defense Council,  in a July 17 statement. “The only obvious and responsible path forward is to facilitate the use of snow coaches, not snowmobiles.”

The Park Service’s three previous plans have been voided in court for either having too many or too few snowmobiles.

Under the Park Service’s new proposed plan, the recent limits of up to 318 daily snowmobiles and 78 daily snowcoaches would remain in effect for the next two seasons. Beginning in the winter of 2014-2015, a completely different system would go into effect. Up to 110 “transportation events” would be allowed in Yellowstone each day. That total could be made up of any combination of snowcoaches and groups of snowmobiles that concessionaires choose, but with a caveat that no more than 50 of the events can be groups of snowmobiles. Four of those snowmobile events would be reserved for non-commercially guided groups, where one individual would guide, but not as a paid guide. In a provision critiqued last week, all of the group’s members would be required to evenly split the costs of the trip.

The Park Service would use a lottery system on Recreation.gov, where citizens would pay a $10 fee for a chance to win a noncommercial slot.

There were plenty of questions about exactly how such a program would work, with one repeated question being: if a sledder’s trip gets canceled due to weather closing the park, do they get a new day to go in?

Vagias said he didn’t know the answer to that one. He described the current plan for non-commercial guiding as an incomplete house or ship.

“We’ve got 25 percent of this ship built, and there’s a reason for that: you’ve all got great ideas that need to be integrated into this,” Vagias said.

One of the lead Park Service employees who worked on the project, David Jacob, said the Park Service is committed to working with those who have a stake in winter use to not only help define the specifics of the noncommercial guiding program, but also to define the park’s plan for adjusting the plan after it’s in place.

Though Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden referred to the non-commercial guiding as “unguided,” Jacob stressed that the Park Service has no interest to go back to unguided use.

“We’ve been warned by the courts that would not be acceptable,” Jacob said.

The Park Service referenced twice the need to have a plan that will stand up in court. For example, Vagias mentioned it when asked where the Park Service came up with a new 68 decibel limit for snowmobiles beginning in 2017-18. The questioner noted that OHV parks have a 98 decibel limit.

“We are seeking a long-term sustainable solution to this, and you can read between those lines, ‘defensible in court,’” Vagias responded.

More technically, Vagias said the Park Service started with an “aggressive but reasonable” 75 decibel limit for snowcoaches, then came up with 68 decibels so that a pod of seven snowmobiles would have a comparable sound output to the one coach operating at 75 dBs. Tighter limits for carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon output would also be implemented on snowmobiles and coaches in 2017-18.

Overall, the Park Service says the impact from a group of snowmobiles or a snowcoach is comparable. That’s what the new method of counting “transportation events” is meant to recognize.

“It’s based on the idea they (wildlife) reacts to groups instead of individual vehicles,” Jacob said, adding, “Really, animals and humans are reacting to that group the same, whether it’s three or four or seven or 10 (snowmobiles).”

He described the new plan as a flexible, market-based approach that also better protects Yellowstone.

The Park Service’s position is in direct contrast to that of environmental groups.

For example, in a summer 2011 newsletter, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition noted that snowcoaches fit more people per vehicle and wrote that a snowcoach-only system “greatly reduces the overall disturbance to wildlife and the unique soundscape of the park.”

The Park Service’s full proposal can be viewed online — and comments can be submitted — by visiting www.parkplanning.nps.gov/yell and clicking the link labeled “Winter Use Plan.” Hard copies of the documents can also be requested from the Park Service, and written comments may be submitted by writing to National Park Service, Management Assistant’s Office, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

Yellowstone officials are seeking comments on the plan through Aug. 20, specifically looking for “something that would make the document better, that would make us to go in and change the document in some material way,” Jacob said.

The process is not a vote, but he said Park Service listens to all comments and if the bulk of comments go one way, it can color what the agency does. For example, after hearing an overwhelming amount of dissatisfaction, officials scrapped the defining feature of last year’s draft — variable daily limits that would have had some days set aside for less use and greater solitude based on a schedule set a year in advance.

“It was unworkable,” Jacob summarized of the feedback on the varying daily use. “The variability didn’t allow visitors to make plans in advance and for operators, it didn’t really provide a viable business model.”

The Park Service then went back and re-analyzed the plan to come with the current one.

“Your comments are really important to us to help us get this right,” Jacob added. Referencing the unsuccessful prior plans, he said the Park Service hopes to make this the last process they have on winter use for a long time.

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