Yellowstone winter use

Posted 3/25/10

The increase came from 106 snowmobilers — 14 more than last year — and 391 skiers — up from 201 last year, preliminary figures say.

Like last season, no operators provided snowcoach service through the East …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Yellowstone winter use


Winter East Gate numbers upPreliminary figures from Yellowstone National Park say winter visitation through the park's East Entrance increased this season — though remaining well below historical visitation.After slumping last season to 293, the lowest number of recreational visitors in decades, visitation this winter rebounded to an estimated number of visitors that was just under 500.

The increase came from 106 snowmobilers — 14 more than last year — and 391 skiers — up from 201 last year, preliminary figures say.

Like last season, no operators provided snowcoach service through the East Entrance.

Park-wide, preliminary figures say 20,388 snowcoach passengers visited Yellowstone this winter (up from 18,963 last year), while 22,249 snowmobilers made the trip (down from 23,417 the previous season).

Snowmobiles operated under increased restrictions this season, which ran from Dec. 15 to March 15. The daily cap dropped from 720 machines per day to a maximum of 318 this season.

As the Park Service begins writing a new plan guiding winter use, local residents and governments likely will need to prove again the worth of keeping Sylvan Pass and the East Entrance open each winter.

“We just feel like we're looking at the end,” said Dede Fales, who co-owns the lone winter operator for the east gate, Gary Fales Outfitting of Rimrock Ranch.

In 2007, the Park Service announced plans to close the East Entrance to all winter travel, citing the expense and safety of managing avalanche danger on Sylvan Pass. But local residents and government officials objected, and after about a half-year's worth of negotiations with state and local government officials, the Park Service agreed to continue opening the East Entrance for winter travel on a slightly shortened season.

But Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis said when a federal judge voided the previous winter plan, the Sylvan Pass agreement went out the window with it. Though the Park Service has continued to honor the agreement under the temporary plan, “It will have to be addressed again” in the new permanent plan, Lewis said.

Cherie Fisher, of the Shut Out of Yellowstone group that pushed to keep the East Entrance open, said pushing for access feels like chasing a moving target.

“We kind of thought we had this buttoned up for a while,” she said.

The east gate's winter visitation — which was at 4,300 seasonal visitors in 2001-2002 — has slumped, and the costs of managing Sylvan Pass for avalanche danger typically cost the Park Service hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some, including environmental groups, have questioned if it's worth keeping the pass open for the now-shrunken number of visitors.

“Does it make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an option for a few hundred people?” asked Mark Pearson of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in a conversation last month. “It doesn't seem like it makes long-term sense.”

Park County Commissioner Tim French counters that the lowered visitation is due to the opposition to snowmobiles posed by the environmental groups and the Park Service's requirement that all snowmobilers be led by a commercial guide.

“It's really tough to get those numbers back up,” he said in a conversation last month. But while numbers may be low now, he said it's important to remember that “When this all started, we had a good, vibrant business (on the North Fork).”

Fales, whose business provides guided snowmobile tours through the east gate, says the Park Service's increased safety precautions on Sylvan Pass and snowmobile restrictions have led to reduced business.

“We have lower numbers because of their policies,” said Fales, adding, “It's like taking away our use and closing us down because there's no use.”

Fales said two trips were canceled due to weather-caused closures on Sylvan Pass, which she called a minimal number.

“Last year was pretty substantial,” she said.

The Faleses no longer advertise their trips, knowing that visitors can travel long distances only to find the gate closed for safety reasons.

“In the past, it was never an issue; now it is, because they close (Sylvan Pass) so quickly,” said Fales.

Despite the lack of advertising, the Faleses guided visitors from Cody, out-of-state, and even out-of-country, including visitors from Australia and Spain.

“We thought our season was OK,” Fales said.

The park's Best Available Technology requirements for snowmobiles say that snowmobiles must be phased out when they hit six years old. That's going to force the Faleses to buy some new machines next year, as they will only have one sled new enough to get into the park. The Faleses are not, however, going to buy a full-fledged new fleet, citing the uncertain future of snowmobiling the park.

“We're not in a position to spend $40,000, $50,000 on machines if our permit's going to be yanked in a year,” she said.

“We'll plan on operating next year. After that, I guess we'll have to wait and see,” said Fales, noting that a new plan is scheduled to guide use beginning in December 2011.

The good news for East Entrance advocates this year was that the number of skiers using the gate rose — 391 skiers would be the highest number of skiers since the 1996-'97 season.

Roy Holm, president of the Park County Nordic Ski Association, said the group had an improved newsletter this year that served as good advertising, and that new and improved youth skiing programs — such as a new middle school nordic program — got more people into Yellowstone.

Also, “I think Sleeping Giant (Ski Area) being open was probably good for folks coming up that direction,” said Holm.

He said the skiers want to see the East Entrance road remain open and groomed for winter recreationists.

“We ski a lot in the park up that road,” said Holm. “This year, that was some of the best skiing.”

Residents voice wariness, weariness

During an open house in Cody Monday night, Yellowstone National Park officials asked for residents' thoughts and ideas on how the park should manage its winter season.

“We're here tonight to really look to the future,” said Yellowstone management assistant John Sacklin, speaking to a crowd of about 30 people.

The Park Service is in the scoping process of drafting a new environmental impact statement guiding winter use in the park. Three previous plans were thrown out by different federal judges over concerns that they allowed too much or too little snowmobile use, necessitating a new statement and plan.

“Scoping is really an important time for you to provide us input on the purpose of this plan,” said Sacklin.

Some in the audience expressed frustration with the restrictions and limits on snowmobiles that have become more restrictive in recent years.

“So by reasonable access (to the park) you mean less access?” asked Cherie Fisher of Cody.

“Every year it seems like it (the daily snowmobile limit) goes down and down,” said Tom Phipps, owner of Mountain Valley Motorsports in Cody.

Phipps said the numbers have sunk too low for snowmobile-oriented businesses in West Yellowstone and Jackson to remain viable.

Sacklin noted that court decisions have led to lower limits.

The new temporary limit, written to guide use only this winter season and next, dropped the maximum number of snowmobiles from up to 720 machines a day to 318 machines, a number based on recent daily averages. Limits on snowcoaches — vehicles environmental groups support — stayed constant at a maximum of 78 per day.

Environmental organizations and advocates believe snowmobiles should be banned from the park, while the state of Wyoming, snowmobilers and Park County commissioners say current limits are unnecessary.

Both sides have sued over past plans, contending they allowed too many or too few machines. Those suits led to the previous three plans being voided: most recently, a proposed 540 daily snowmobile cap was nixed by D.C.-based Judge Emmet Sullivan in September 2008.

“Would it be a fair assumption that, because the courts have ruled that 540 (had too much of an impact), that what they're looking for is more and more restrictions?” asked Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown.

“You can't speculate on what the courts want or don't want,” said Sacklin. He said the Park Service took Sullivan's decision to mean they hadn't adequately explained why the impact of snowmobiling in the park was justified.

Going forward, “We need to do a very good explanation on why those alternatives (that are ultimately chosen) work for Yellowstone,” said Sacklin.

John Osgood of Cody, a former Yellowstone Park ranger, said he believes the new plan likely will end up in court too, given the polarized opinions on either side of the snowmobiling issue.

“It's almost like pro-life and pro-choice,” Osgood said, adding, “Is there any middle ground?”

He noted that the Park Service's mission calls for both conservation and public enjoyment.

Responding to the idea that lawsuits will result from whatever plan the park comes up with, “We don't like to speculate about future court actions,” said Sacklin. But, he noted, every other plan the Park Service has come up with has been challenged.

“It's been a long, long time,” said Tamra Cikaitoga, the Fremont County, Idaho, director of Parks and Recreation who traveled to the open house. She said the negative publicity surrounding the lawsuits — which began more than a decade ago — and changing use levels have been the most damaging.

“There has got to be an answer here somewhere so we can start to rebuild,” Cikaitoga said.

“We've done this so many times that you get weary,” said Mayor Brown.

But she noted that input is needed from the public during the scoping process, despite any weariness.

When the previous winter plan was thrown out, so were all the previous public comments, necessitating a new round of input, said Sacklin.

The public comment period closes at 10 p.m. on March 30.

Comments can be submitted online at or by mail to Winter Use Scoping, Yellowstone National Park, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said drafting the new impact statement and rule will cost around $1 million. The Park Service plans to release a draft environmental impact statement about one year from now.

Some of the key issues the impact statement will analyze include looking at impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat, sound, air quality, visitor use and experience, socioecomonics and impacts on park operations and maintenance.

One of the topics that has drawn increased interest this time around is the prospect of plowing some or all of the park's roads in the winter, allowing automobiles to enter the park.

Park County commissioners have asked the Park Service to begin a noncommercial pilot program where qualified individuals would be allowed to enter the park without a commercial guide.

The Park Service has said it will look at all options.