Local impacts of park's winter plan unclear

Posted 12/2/08

In the 2007-08 season, 550 visitors passed through the East Entrance, approaching a record low.

Snowmobile use through the entrance slumped to its lowest level on record. National Park Service statistics say that 148 snowmobiles traveled through …

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Local impacts of park's winter plan unclear


The east gate to Yellowstone National Park opens in three weeks, and there will be snowmobiles. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess what will happen.Up to 40 snowmobiles and two snowcoaches per day will be allowed through the East Entrance during the Dec. 22 to March 1 winter season. That's the same number allowed last year.However, actual use may stay far below that level.

In the 2007-08 season, 550 visitors passed through the East Entrance, approaching a record low.

Snowmobile use through the entrance slumped to its lowest level on record. National Park Service statistics say that 148 snowmobiles traveled through the east gate over the 82-day season — an average of fewer than two per day. The busiest day saw 11 machines.

Only one operator, Gary Fales Outfitting of Rimrock Ranch, is licensed for snowmobile guiding through the East Entrance. Fales is permitted to guide 20 of the 40 daily snowmobiles.

The other 20 daily permits have no takers.

“We've certainly not seen a lot of activity,” said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said, noting that the litigation-induced uncertainty over the park's winter plans, is “certain to have had impacts.”

As recently as 2002, more than 4,300 visitors were using the East Entrance each winter.

Meanwhile, snowcoach use last year surged to its highest level yet, recording 250 visitors during the winter season. Conservation groups point to similar trends around the park as evidence that snowcoaches are the winter travel of the future.

However, Pahaska Teepee Lodge owner Bob Coe said snowcoach users and snowmobilers aren't the same audience. He said snowmobilers won't start taking a snowcoach — they'll just stop visiting the park.

“It's the preferred travel method for a small group of people ... the majority of people want to be outside on a snowmobile,” he said. “They don't really cross over there very well.”

Statistics show that the boom in snowcoach visitation has yet to replace the number of snowmobilers lost over recent years.

Nash said the data shows that snowmobiles are just as acceptable as coaches.

“Snowcoaches are not a panacea,” he said. He noted that the coaches have the worst fuel efficiency of all the vehicles in the park on a per-passenger basis.

Tim Stevens, Yellowstone program manager for the National Park Conservation Association, said a snowcoach-only policy is better for the environment and local economies.

“Yellowstone is the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said. “What we want to do is protect that economy for the future ... The last thing we want to do is have a degraded experience for park visitors, because they just are not going to come back.”

However, the National Park Conservation Association does not want winter visitors to come back to the East Entrance. It advocates the gate be closed to winter travel.

That had been Yellowstone's original plan, citing the cost and risk of managing snow in Sylvan Pass. However, after local citizens and government protested, Yellowstone officials began negotiating with representatives from the state, county and Cody to find a way to keep the pass open.

Eventually, the Park Service agreed to continue shooting for avalanches on the pass. As part of the agreement, East Entrance travel was limited to a “core season” two weeks shorter than the rest of the park's.

The National Park Conservation Association believes the compromise was a mistake.

“We looked at what the Park Service had said, and they said it's too unsafe for our employees, and we don't have the money to keep it open,” Stevens said. “There's been nothing that's been put on the table that's alleviated our concerns.”

He called the maintenance of Sylvan Pass a “tremendous Park Service expenditure in the face of a $20 million budget deficit.”

Park County Commission Chairman Tim French has said it is unfair to single out Sylvan, saying that other areas of Yellowstone are expensive on a per-user basis, too.

The cost of managing Sylvan for the upcoming season is estimated at more than $450,000. Additionally, planned upgrades total more than $3.9 million.

The state of Wyoming has agreed to work with the Park Service on picking up some of those costs.

Keeping Sylvan consistently open for travel may be a challenge.

Pahaska's Coe used to hold the license for 20 daily guided snowmobiles. But in January of 2007, he began closing for the winter, citing high costs.

“We gave it up because we couldn't depend on the pass being open,” Coe said.

During last winter's 82-day season, nearly one of every three days was affected by full or partial safety closures of Sylvan Pass.

Bob Richard, a Cody resident with some 20 years of winter operating experience, agreed with Coe's assessment of Sylvan's management.

“I would not use a snowcoach through the East Entrance because of the predictability of access, or lack thereof,” he said.

Richard said when he takes visitors into the park, he uses the North Entrance. He noted that the East Entrance can be closed for days, getting visitors stuck.

“I don't think that's fair to my clients,” he said.

Coe said he never purchased a snowcoach for Pahaska because he didn't believe it was a commercially-viable option for getting visitors from the East Entrance into the heart of the park.

“The distances are too far, and the speeds are too slow,” he said.

High Country Adventures and Xanterra are the only operators licensed for east-gate snowcoach touring. However, Xanterra does not offer East Entrance tours, and in mid-November, Jon Sowerine of High Country Adventures told KULR-8 he wasn't sure if he'll operate this winter.