Changing winter use in Yellowstone

Posted 6/7/11

In early May, the National Park Service released its preferred plan for winter use in Yellowstone. It would allow fewer snowmobiles and snowcoaches in coming seasons, limiting traffic to an average daily cap of 254 snowmobiles and 63 coaches. Limits …

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Changing winter use in Yellowstone


Park Service open to different ideas

Yellowstone National Park managers say the public comments they receive in the coming month will change how they decide to manage the park’s winter snowmobile and snowcoach traffic.

“This is a critical junction in the (winter use) plan, and we really need to hear what you all have to say,” Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said during a meeting in Cody on Thursday night.

In early May, the National Park Service released its preferred plan for winter use in Yellowstone. It would allow fewer snowmobiles and snowcoaches in coming seasons, limiting traffic to an average daily cap of 254 snowmobiles and 63 coaches. Limits would differ depending on the day, based on a schedule set a year in advance. All the machines would have to meet clean and quiet technology requirements and be led by a commercial guide.

The limits used for the past two seasons — of 318 sleds and 78 coaches — would remain in place for the coming 2011-2012 winter.

Wenk said public comments — being accepted through July 18 — undoubtedly will lead to some changes in the plan.

“I do know in my heart of hearts that the final plan we come out with will not be the same as the preferred alternative,” Wenk said. He said he’s already heard comments that have made him rethink some things in the draft plan.

Only about two dozen people attended the Cody meeting, where nearly a dozen Park Service personnel were on hand to answer questions. While some submitted written comments, just four people spoke during the formal oral comment period, taking up 15 minutes of the allotted hour.

“Let’s plow ‘em (park roads) and let everybody enjoy Yellowstone in the winter,” said Bob Richard, a Cody resident, former park ranger and concessionaire.

Bert Miller of Cody, the vice president of the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association, said his organization wants higher snowmobiling limits than those preferred by the park and an option for unguided use.

In his comments, Park County Commissioner Tim French agreed.

“It’s like a chip, chip, chip, chip, chip (on allowed use). We’re down to something that’s really not viable, whether you’re a concessionaire or an individual,” French said.

He also spoke against the varying daily limits.

“I just don’t think it’s going to work. We need some certainty. The park needs some certainty, too,” French said.

Mack Frost, chairman of the Cody Conservation District, said limiting the number of machines “is wrong and counter-productive to the purpose of the park.”

Rather than having a requirement that all snowmobilers be led by a commercial guide, Frost said the Park Service should increase the penalties for going off trail and do more patrols.

“That’s the big problem — those few individuals who screwed it up for everyone else because they just had to go where they weren’t supposed to go,” Frost said.

The Park Service’s preferred plan differs most significantly from past plans with the changing daily limits. They would range from a low of 110 snowmobiles and 30 snowcoaches to a high of 330 sleds and 80 coaches. That’s down from limits of 720 sleds/78 coaches from 2004 to 2009 and the recent 318 sled/78 coach cap.

Those lower-use days would be quieter and provide better chances for solitude for skiers and snowmobilers, the Park Service has said. Motorized vehicles would have to enter the park by 10:30 a.m. on all days, and some parts of Yellowstone would be set aside for skiers and snowshoers some parts of the winter season.

“This is an alternative to give an experience to everyone,” said David Jacob, the Park Service’s project leader in drafting the new plan.

Unlike past efforts, the drafting of this Environmental Impact Statement and plan was managed out of the National Park Service’s Washington, D.C., office, instead of by Park Service officials in Yellowstone.

“I think we just wanted, as an agency, a fresh take on this,” said Jacob.

For the first time, a Science Advisory Team of six government scientists was assembled to produce a scientific assessment backing the plan. The Park Service also squared up some discrepancies between modeling and monitoring data and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure the air modeling was “the latest and greatest,” Jacob said.

“We wanted to be sure that we crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s this time,” he said. Jacob noted it was the Park Service’s fourth attempt at crafting a permanent rule. The previous three plans were voided in federal courts following different suits by environmental groups (saying snowmobile limits were too high) and snowmobile advocates (saying limits were too low).

Over the past four winters, actual daily use has averaged 220 snowmobiles and 34 coaches.

The Park Service has yet to release the proposed rule for its preferred plan, which will lay out the legal framework for its new plan and spell out the details, such as the new technology requirements.

On Friday, Jerimiah Rieman, a natural resource policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead, said he’s heard the proposed rule has been delayed because the federal Office of Management and Budget opposes the Park Service’s push for air quality standards that are more stringent than those of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said he did not know what was causing the delay, but he said it was not uncommon.

“This is, frankly, a high-profile issue for the national parks and those types of issues do receive a fair amount of review,” Nash said.

After last week’s meeting, Wenk — who took over as park superintendent earlier this year — said he has been impressed by the extreme passion about Yellowstone’s winter use.

“If there wasn’t the passion, it wouldn’t be difficult,” he said.

More information and a form to submit comments are available at by clicking on the “Winter Use Plan/EIS” link.