In some ways, winter in Yellowstone National Park remains the same as it has for centuries.
Geysers spout. Elk scamper. Snow falls.
But in other ways, overcrowding, visitor conflicts, resource damage and safety concerns cloud what’s best about Yellowstone: its wildness.
Critics say smoke-belching snowmobiles may become the dinosaurs of the 20th century unless industry, riders and tour companies heed calls for emissions controls.
During the winter of 1995, more than 87,000 winter explorers revved snowmobiles into the park. (Snowmobile visits dropped 14 percent last year, probably due to the government shutdown during peak season.)
After Yellowstone managers received over 1,200 letters in two years expressing concerns and complaints about the snow machines - criticisms filed by snowmobilers and non-snowmobilers alike - the park service launched studies to determine just how much is too much.
Scientists set up devices in Yellowstone to evaluate fuel emission levels. In neighboring Grand Teton National Park, officials tested noise levels.
The results: Three of the testing sites at the West Entrance to Yellowstone exceeded National Ambient Air Quality Standards for carbon monoxide, and one site exceeded Montana’s state standard.
In Grand Teton, the maximum vehicle noise levels at four study sites 50 to 1,300 feet from the snowmobile trail averaged 40 to 65 decibels - still well below federal workplace health standards, but too loud by many park users’ standards.
For back-country users, these studies become the first hard evidence that prove what skiers, snowshoers and others have felt for years: snowmobiles do more than grate on the nerves.
The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, comprised of federal land managers in the region, intends to release recommendations on winter use in and around the nation’s first national park. Basically, the issue is whether Yellowstone is being loved to death.
“With the increasing popularity of the greater Yellowstone area comes a dilemma: How can we ensure that national park and national forest resources are protected, and that quality visitor experiences are provided in the face of this growth in visitation?” wrote the committee, staffed by managers from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and Gallatin, Shoshone, Bridger-Teton, Targhee, and Beaverhead national forests.
As stewards of the nation’s crown jewels, these land managers will consider the emissions information, public comment and winter use statistics to create a winter-use plan. One result could be a limit on the number of snowmobiles entering Yellowstone.
While a decision on snowmobile use has yet to be released by Yellowstone Park Superintendent Mike Finley, last winter the park did install new rules applying to snowmobiles.
In the park, all snowmobile drivers must carry a valid driver’s license, a move to prevent youngsters from handling the 700-pound machines.
The park service has stopped issuing use permits to new snowmobile tour companies.
Snowmobilers can now purchase passes the day before a tour, a rule change aimed at reducing the traditional bottleneck at the West Yellowstone entrance gate where idling machines belch blue haze.
And the park service now uses a biodegradable lube oil, which is expected to reduce emissions in the 99 snow machines used for administrative purposes.
“We’re using a new Conoco oil, a biodegradable synthetic, 2-cycle oil, in our entire fleet,” says John Sacklin, planning chief for Yellowstone. “We’ve found no problems, whatsoever. We used the Conoco on a test basis the (previous) winter, before it was commercially available. One of the rental outlets in West Yellowstone also used it the winter before.”
The process of creating a new National Park Service Winter Use Plan began the summer of 1994, and public comment period ran into May 1996.
After the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee identified common goals and issues, it consolidated information and began to identify the range of desired conditions.
“Committee members are strongly considering limiting snowmobile use within the park,” said one park headquarters employee who asked not to be identified, “But it’s a hot issue. We had visitor-use meetings in the surrounding communities, and people in places like Bozeman and West Yellowstone were very impassioned about limiting or not limiting the snowmobile.”
The passion for snowmobiling has a lot to do with money. Tourism is a $1.3 billion industry in Montana. A 1994 University of Montana report estimated that nonresident snowmobilers spend about $40 million a year on food, lodging, and machine rental costs, while state residents spend another $60 million.
Nationwide, some 1,276,500 snowmobiles are registered, up about 58,000 over 1995, according to Ed Klim of the International Association of Snowmobile Manufacturers.
“I’ve studied the Winter Use Plan materials,” says Klim. “There’s a terrible amount of misinformation out there. We would want to see substantiation for any action taken by the park.”
Snowmobile manufacturers have commissioned their own study of snow machine emissions. “We won’t have baseline information for another three or four years,” said Klim.
An estimated 21,000 Nordic skiers tracked through Yellowstone last winter, 15 percent of the total 140,000 winter visitors. Some complained that it’s almost impossible to ski in the park without hearing snowmobiles.
Park rules only allow the machines on groomed roads, and scientists disagree on the machines’ impact on wildlife.
Some say snowmobiles traveling the park’s 200 miles of groomed roads stress animals, while others suggest the noise allows animals time to prepare for human contact, instead of being startled by quiet skiers.
This year, at least one of the snow vehicles cruising Yellowstone is different. Ron Gatheridge and Bob Gruber designed and built a more efficient, quieter touring vehicle they call the Parker (after Yellowstone Park, of course).
“Ever since we moved here three years ago, all we heard is people complain about emissions, noise, et cetera,” says Gatheridge, co-owner of High Mark Snowmobile Rental in West Yellowstone. He salvaged parts from various snow machines, coupled them with a Geo Metro motor and had his prototype family cruising machine on display for the 1996 Snowmobile Manufacturers’ expo in West Yellowstone.
“It drew a lot of interest,” says Gatheridge, who expects to rent it every day this winter. For about $170 (the cost of renting a conventional snowmobile), the Parker carries up to four people and still gets 20 miles a gallon. Snowmobiles get 10.
Critics contend the Parker lacks power because of its four-cycle, four-stroke engine.
“It’s not designed to do what a regular snowmobile does and shouldn’t be compared to a regular snowmobile,” argues Gatheridge, pointing out that the machine is designed specifically for Yellowstone, where the speed limit - winter and summer - is 45 mph.
Bombardier and Polaris manufacturers have shown off prototype four-cycle snowmobiles. But neither company intends to mass-produce the more efficient machines, since they’re costlier and less powerful.
“Bombardier had a four-stroke engine six years ago, but nobody bought it,” says Klim. “The market didn’t accept it.” didn’t accept it.”
“The snowmobile industry says it’s not interested in quieter machines, and snowmobilers say they don’t want slower machines,” says Jeanne-Marie Souvigney of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Our response is that if they are not interested in creating a machine compatible with Yellowstone, then get out.”
Trying to keep a step ahead of any regulation, the snowmobile industry is working with state and federal agencies to evaluate alternative fuels such as ethanol blends and biomass-based fuels and lubes that will significantly reduce emissions.
“Automobile manufacturers began working to reduce car emissions (after) the Clean Air Act of 1970,” says Howard Haines, an engineer with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “At the time, the EPA considered snowmobiles a minor source of pollution. Yellowstone has brought things to a head because of temperature inversions, very cold temperatures and elevations.”
While Haines and the other scientists can find bio-synthetic and biodegradable oils to reduce emissions, what they can’t do is lighten the snowmobile traffic jams with hundreds of idling engines, nor can they overcome poor machine maintenance - both contributing factors to the great blue haze.
So in Yellowstone, elk are still scampering, geysers are still spouting, snow is still falling - and the snowmobile dilemma still chugs along.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ALTERNATIVES TO SNOWMOBILES In winter, all Yellowstone National Park roads except Mammoth to Cooke City and Canyon to Tower are open to snowmobiles. But there are other ways to see the park, including: Several trails are open to Nordic skiers, like the Riverside trail loop into the park from West Yellowstone along the Madison River. The well-known Rendezvous Trail Complex is a groomed trail system just outside the park in West Yellowstone. For information, call (406) 646-7369. The Yellowstone Alpen Guides offer full-day guided ski tours throughout the park on Wednesdays for $85 (includes lunch). Groups of six or more skiers can book any day of the week. Skiers begin with sightseeing from the snowcoach, then ski the trails of the interior of the park, including Fairy Falls and Lone Star Geyser. Call (800) 858-3502 for information. Visitors can tour Yellowstone National Park by snowcoach in passenger vans converted to snowcoaches with skis instead of tires. Several outfitters offer snowcoach tours from West Yellowstone. Prices range from $69 to $79 plus tax and a park entrance fee of $10. Call Yellowstone Alpen Guides (800) 858-3502. Or call Yellowstone Tour and Travel at (800) 221-1151. To rent the Parker, the family cruising machine, ($170 per day rental for up to four people) contact High Mark Snowmobile Rental at (406) 646-7586, or P.O. Box 218, West Yellowstone, MT 59758. For lodging, dining, travel and rental information, contact the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, Box 458, West Yellowstone, MT 59758, (406) 646-7701, or contact Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, (307) 646-7369. Jean Arthur