Community ponders next step on Yellowstone winter use

Posted 11/10/09

While saying that “the deck is stacked” in the Park Service's favor, James Kaste, senior assistant with the state attorney general's office, said that the more local input submitted, “the better the rule we're probably going to get …

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Community ponders next step on Yellowstone winter use


With the East Entrance's winter visitation a shadow of what it once was, Park County businesses and officials have their work cut out for them in pushing for continued and expanded access to Yellowstone National Park during the winter season.That was one of the loudest messages from a meeting last week at the Cody Club as the battle over snowmobile use in Yellowstone gears up for another round.House Speaker Colin Simpson, R-Cody, told the audience of business leaders and government officials that the community must put together clear, credible data for the National Park Service to consider as it works to draft a permanent winter use rule.

While saying that “the deck is stacked” in the Park Service's favor, James Kaste, senior assistant with the state attorney general's office, said that the more local input submitted, “the better the rule we're probably going to get from them (the Park Service).”

Kaste said comments with concrete, specific data are best.

But coming up with data to show the importance of the East Entrance in the winter may be difficult. In the 2008-09 season, it was used by only 92 snowmobilers and 203 skiers. There was no snow coach travel.

Simpson said the community may need to put together studies and comments based on past data when the gate was more popular, and project what kind of an impact the county could see if use increases.

Diane Shober, director of the Wyoming Department of Tourism, noted at the meeting that Park County is one of the state's top tourist draws — thanks in large part to Yellowstone.

“Park and Teton counties are the cash cows of Wyoming tourism, and it's predominantly because of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park,” said Shober.

She said winter is obviously not the biggest tourism season for Wyoming, but said the state has been working to expand its winter promotions. Shober said an expanded marketing push based on bundling products might similarly prove worthwhile in the Cody area.

From the Buffalo Bill Historical Center to Sleeping Giant to ice climbing and wildlife viewing, “You really have all the assets you need to develop for winter tourism,” Shober said.

Cody business advocates said it has been a challenge recently to promote the North Fork in the winter when there are few businesses open and the Yellowstone winter operators are in flux.

One attendee noted that Sylvan Pass — located just a few miles inside the East Entrance — can close quickly. That's led to potential visitors being turned away at the east gate, leaving Cody “with a bad taste in their mouth.”

“The uncertainty of the weather on Sylvan Pass is a big problem,” said Simpson.

Last winter, about one out of every four days at the East Entrance was at least partially affected by closure due to dangerous travel conditions on the pass. When avalanches threaten, the pass is closed until the Park Service can deploy explosives and set the snow loose.

Three winters ago, Pahaska Tepee stopped offering snowmobile tours into the park, citing Sylvan's often uncertain status. The only currently permitted snowmobile operator, Gary Fales Outfitting of Rimrock Ranch, doesn't bother advertising its tours because of too many instances where customers have been unable to get into the park, or had trouble getting out.

The lone snow coach service, High Country Adventures, didn't operate last year, citing the up-in-the-air legal status of winter use.

“We've got to have concessionaires who can operate these guided trips, and it has to be a reasonable cost,” said Simpson. He expressed hope that this month's slated re-opening of the Sleeping Giant Ski Area a few miles east of the East Entrance would have a “rippling effect.”

Park County Commissioner Tim French said that, while he blames the Park Service for the East Entrance's sagging winter visitation, he's concerned with high price of managing the pass for a small number of snowmobilers.

French said the Park Service will look at the expense per visitor, “and they're going to go, ‘Woah,'” he said.

In the 2006-07 and 2007-08 winter seasons, managing Sylvan Pass cost $179,000 and $298,806 respectively.

While the park has not provided costs for the past 2008-09 season, there were just the 295 visitors through the east gate, down from levels that were more than 4,300 as recently as 2001-02.

French said he primarily blames the slide on the park's added requirement that all snowmobilers be led by a commercial guide.

“Nobody wanted to have their hand held to go through the park on a snow machine,” he said.

An audience member described the guiding requirement as “screwing us in every possible way.”

Simpson, however, pegged the odds of getting the provision removed at only about 10 percent.

The Park County Commission has pushed the Park Service to provide a licensing process for non-commercial guides, allowing locals to lead their friends into Yellowstone.

Bob Richard of Cody, a winter operator, said the county may want to shift its focus from the East Entrance and Sylvan Pass.

“If you're going to think broadly, why not plow the roads in Yellowstone in the winter?” asked Richard. He said studies have shown that it's cheaper to plow the roads than groom them for over-snow use.

“Expand your thinking, but don't get stuck on Sylvan Pass,” Richard said. “It's a dangerous pass.”

Specifically, Richard said efforts could be made to push for plowing the way to the Northeast Entrance.

In the winter, Yellowstone plows the road from the North Entrance to Cooke City, but the Beartooth Highway between Cooke City and Red Lodge is closed. The stretch is used as a snowmobile trail instead.

Rick Hoeninghausen, the marketing director for Yellowstone concessionaire Xanterra, said he's also an advocate of plowing the Northeast Entrance. He said doing so would bring the Cody community a “pretty quick and pretty hefty economic return,” but added that no one has “brought all the players together on that discussion.”

French said the community must be careful in not giving the Park Service an opportunity to close the East Entrance and plow the Northeast Entrance instead.

French also cautioned that, while the audience on Monday, Nov. 2 appeared favorable to plowing the Northeast Entrance, as a commissioner, “we hear from a lot of people who want it left as it is.”

Simpson said local snowmobiling groups value the snowmobiling the Beartooth Highway currently provides, and he expressed no interest in abandoning the Sylvan fight. However, he said it made sense to talk further about Northeast Entrance access.

“How long are we not going to talk about it?” Simpson asked. “It's time to have a good community discussion.”

Next round of snowmobile battle could begin soon

This winter, Yellowstone officials will begin work on a new environmental impact statement that will examine the impacts of snowmobiling in the park and guide the park's winter policy for the future.

It will be the Park Service's fourth attempt to do so — the previous three impact statements have been voided by federal judges over concerns about snowmobile access.

And, though the process has not yet begun, new litigation already is on the horizon.

Over the next two winters, while work is completed on the new environmental impact statement, the Park Service plans to allow up to 318 commercially-guided snowmobiles with best available technology into Yellowstone each day, along with 78 snowcoaches.

At a meeting with Cody business leaders on Nov. 2, James Kaste, a senior assistant with the Wyoming attorney general's office, said the state believes the temporary 318-rule does not allow enough snowmobile access. He said the state is considering filing a new suit.

“If that happens, that will happen Nov. 12 (sic),” Kaste said, referring to the day the rule is officially published in the federal register. Publication has been slated for Nov. 15.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have expressed concern that 318 machines per day is too many. If they choose to sue, they will presumably also do so when the new temporary rule is published.

Kaste said Yellowstone will never have a permanent rule allowing snowmobiles in the park unless it gets past a federal district court judge and a circuit court of appeals.

“And that (District Court) judge is not Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington,” Kaste said.

Sullivan has twice rejected the Park Service's attempt to create a permanent winter use rule — once in late 2003 (a rule that would have allowed nearly 1,000 machines a day) and then in September 2008 (a rule that would have allowed up to 540 a day).

Kaste said Sullivan will not approve any plan that provides snowmobile access.

Environmental groups are sure to sue over a plan that allows snowmobiles, “And he (Sullivan) will probably say, ‘Yeah, sure, it's too many,'” Kaste said.

Unless the state and other snowmobile supporters give up, he said, there's no room for compromise with environmentalists.

“There will be no number other than zero that will satisfy the other side,” said Kaste.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This version of this story corrects the date that Yellowstone's new temporary winter use rule is scheduled for publication in the Federal Register.