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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Snowmobile debate on hiatus, not over

Becky Bohrer Associated Press

BILLINGS – For the past two winters, West Yellowstone business owner David McCray hasn’t felt optimistic, but he and others in this tiny gateway to Yellowstone National Park are full of hope this year.

There’s snow on the ground. Early bookings look promising. And, when Yellowstone opens for its winter season Wednesday, it will be the first time in three years that snowmobile tourists aren’t playing by a new set of rules in the park.

“This year is normal, and that takes a ton of pressure off us,” said McCray, who is already booked with snowmobile tours the first few days of the winter season.

However, that continuity may be short-lived, as the National Park Service is working on a new long-range plan for winter use that is likely to again ignite the debate about whether the machines should even be allowed in the park.

Businesses are still feeling the financial effects of the court challenges and rule changes that created confusion in 2003 and a season shortened by poor snowfall last year.

Now, many business leaders in West Yellowstone are working to diversify the wintertime economy of a town that once billed itself as “snowmobile capital of the world.”

There’s greater emphasis on seeing the park by mass-transit snowcoaches, a mode of transportation some conservationists favor over snowmobiles; promotion of cross-country ski areas; and on attracting snowmobilers to trails just outside the park.

“This is a very different town than it was three or five winters ago,” said Marysue Costello, executive director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

For years, snowmobile access to the park was virtually unfettered, and the hum of the machines reverberated through West Yellowstone as enthusiasts set off from their hotels for the short drive to the park gate. But that ended before the 2003-04 winter, when the Park Service moved from a Clinton-era plan that called for phasing out snowmobiles in favor of snowcoaches and decided instead to limit the numbers and types of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

Park officials defended that as a balance between recreational use and the protection of park resources, but environmentalists sued and, on the eve of that winter season’s opening, a federal judge set aside the new plan. That set off a chain of events that business owners said scared off tourists and cost them dearly.

Rules that took effect last year limit to 720 the number of snowmobiles allowed into Yellowstone each day, and they must join commercially guided tours. The machines must be cleaner and quieter than earlier models.

These rules are expected to be in place through next winter and were meant to provide some stability to gateway communities while the Park Service works on its longer-term plan.

Many business owners like the new rules, although some would like to see the caps raised and restrictions eased.

“There’s no turning back for this community,” said Scott Carsley, who has a snowcoach and cross-country ski business. “We’re never going to get back to the day when snowmobiling was in its heyday … and I’m personally very happy about that.”

Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for park concessionaire Xanterra Parks & Resorts at Yellowstone, said the circumstances of the last few years have the potential to be a positive for the region.

“We’re resilient as an industry,” said Hoeninghausen, who is based in Mammoth Hot Springs and whose company is diversifying its services to include, among other things, ice skating near Old Faithful. “Either you adapt or you don’t survive, and I think what you’re seeing is part of the adaptation after the last few years.”