Park Service begins fourth attempt at winter plan

Posted 3/11/10

The public scoping period closes March 30. An open house to give information about the process and solicit ideas from the public has been slated in Cody on March 22.

Yellowstone Park spokesman Al Nash said the park expects to consider a wide …

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Park Service begins fourth attempt at winter plan


{gallery}03_09_10/ystone{/gallery}Yellowstone National Park's snow and winter sun gleam in this January photograph taken by park visitor Charles Scheffold, who toured the park on a photography-oriented snowmobile trip. The National Park Service is beginning the process of creating a new plan to guide winter use in Yellowstone. To see more of Scheffold's photos, visit Courtesy photo/Charles Scheffold Try, try, try again With three previous plans voided by federal judges over the past decade, the National Park Service is beginning its fourth attempt to create a permanent rule guiding winter use in Yellowstone National Park.“We begin this process with a clear goal: a winter use plan for Yellowstone National Park consistent with the NPS mission, best available sound science, accurate fidelity to the law, and the long-term public interest,” said Jon Jarvis, National Park Service director, in a Jan. 29 statement.

The public scoping period closes March 30. An open house to give information about the process and solicit ideas from the public has been slated in Cody on March 22.

Yellowstone Park spokesman Al Nash said the park expects to consider a wide range of alternatives in drafting a new plan.

There are a wide range of opinions — from plowing the park's roads to allowing unguided snowmobile access to switching to snowcoach-only transportation.

The hottest legal controversy has been over the use of snowmobiles, with a decade-long legal battle between pro- and anti-snowmobiling groups across the country.

Tourist Charles Scheffold of Orange County, N,Y., took his first snowmobiling trip to the park this past January, spending five days on a photography-oriented tour out of West Yellowstone.

Scheffold said a number of people back home in New York scoffed at the idea of him snowmobiling in Yellowstone.

“Many people I talk to have this idea that there are hoards of extreme snowmobilers speeding through the park at 100 mph, chasing the animals around, and stinking up the place with noisy two-stroke snowmobiles,” Scheffold said in an e-mail. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Snowmobiles are currently required to meet best available technology standards, be led by a commercial guide, stay on groomed trails, and have to follow the same speed limits as summer traffic. On his trip, Scheffold said, the animals appeared unbothered by the passing snowmobilers.

However, environmental groups, such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, say snowmobiles have an undue impact on the park's fragile winter ecosystem, and snowcoaches are a better choice. Mark Pearson, the coalition's national parks program director, says the coaches provide the greatest level of accessibility. The Park Service and others say snowcoaches are not without their own environmental problems.

Everyone agrees that the park has been well-served by the switch to cleaner and quieter four-stroke snowmobiles, and by the creation of limits on the maximum number of daily sleds — though they disagree on what specific cap is appropriate.

“Our product was not sustainable,” said Randy Roberson, a winter operator in West Yellowstone. “We couldn't keep using the park on those (previous, higher) levels with snowmobiles.”

Roberson, who offers both snowmobile and snowcoach tours through Yellowstone Vacations, says he's opted to focus his business' time and effort into the coaches.

“Our demographics have changed. Our customers have changed,” Roberson said, noting an increased tourist push for interpretative trips and snowcoaches. He said snowcoaches are better for snowshoers and skiers, and photographers.

With the various requirements on snowmobiling in the park, “The snowmobilers don't consider that snowmobiling,” said Roberson.

However, visitors like Scheffold still see a significant difference between the experiences.

“I think a snowcoach is a great idea for my grandmother or someone who just wants to sit back and look out the window,” Scheffold said. “For me, I wanted the freedom to stop and photograph the scenery on my own terms.”

“The snowmobile really allows you to feel in touch with the park and go certain places that a snowcoach wouldn't,” he added.

Roberson, for his part, isn't going to be pushing the Park Service for any specific level of snowmobiles or snowcoaches.

“I hope they look at the science and come up with a defensible winter use plan,” he said, adding that he's tired of the lawsuits that have led to the three previous plans being voided.

Roberson says the litigation has been more harmful to businesses than the park's caps on winter use.

“I think it creates such a negative atmosphere of such a wonderful place,” he said.

Pearson said the issue would have reached equilibrium by now if a 2000 plan to phase out all snowmobiles hadn't been voided by a district court judge in Cheyenne.

“I think it's unfortunate we didn't just stick with the decision that was made initially,” said Pearson.

He said the Greater Yellowstone Coalition would like to move on to discussing other important issues in Yellowstone.

“We're hopeful this will be the last time around,” Pearson said.

Park County Commissioner Tim French, a strong snowmobile advocate, also hopes to see a final solution, but vehemently disagrees on how to reach it.

“We could be done with it if they (environmental groups) didn't have a zero snow machine policy,” said French, who's frustrated with sagging winter visitation at the park's East Entrance. “This is all their fault. If they're ready to be done with it, they need to back off.”

French, for his part, wishes that the Park Service and court system had stuck with a 950-sled cap, a figure that was reached as a part of a settlement between Wyoming, snowmobile industry groups and the Park Service. That, French said, was a plan state and local governments were pleased with, but it was voided by district court judge in Washington, D.C.

More litigation is likely no matter what the Park Service decides. If the plan includes snowmobiles, environmental groups are likely to file suit. If it doesn't, sled advocates like the state of Wyoming are likely to sue.

When asked if the Park Service is cynical going into the process for a fourth time, “Our outlook is one of resolve,” said park spokesman Nash.