Yellowstone opens to fewer — but still too many — snowmobiles

Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by David Long.

The winter season at the world’s first national park has begun, and thanks to recent snowstorms, anyone dreaming of a white Christmas should be able to find it at Yellowstone.

This time of year can be especially peaceful — at least if you manage to steer clear of the snowmobiles that roar through this national park (and nearby Grand Teton National Park).

Are snowmobiles appropriate inside Yellowstone? No. These machines make way too much noise, spew too much pollution, and create unacceptable pressure on wildlife. A few years ago, when snowmobile use peaked, some park rangers at entrance gates wore gas masks to limit their intake of benzene and formaldehyde. Picture that.

The science is clear — and has been for years. Over the last decade, the National Park Service has conducted multiple studies, with a total price tag of $10 million, and each one has concluded that the snowmobiles must go. But the snowmobile lobby had the ear of the Bush administration, and in 2004, the number of snowmobiles permitted was set at 720. Federal courts were unable to agree on the policy, so that maximum has been bouncing up and down.

The snowmobile manufacturers have been promising for years that they would build quieter, cleaner machines, but these vehicles always seem to be right around the corner, and we never quite get to that corner. Even if someday such machines finally become standard, there will still be harm to wildlife, whose ability to find food and shelter is compromised by all the snowmobiles racing around.

It’s not as if snowmobilers will be stuck at home hanging wallpaper if they can’t operate in Yellowstone. There are thousands of miles of trails in nearby national forests and other places. If people insist on their “right” to make all that noise and pollute the air, at least get them out of the world’s first national park.

I understand why some business owners want the Park Service to allow this traffic. But that is not justification for policy that is bad for our parks and our health. In a capitalist economy, businesses adjust. Or they are replaced by those that provide what is in demand.

And what is increasingly in demand at Yellowstone is travel on snowcoaches. These vehicles can accommodate more people, they have tapes that educate visitors, and they are much quieter and cleaner than snowmobiles. The main entrance, at West Yellowstone, will admit 34 of them a day.

The park is operating under an interim rule this winter and next as it produces a new environmental impact statement to guide winter use. The interim rule will allow up to 318 guided four-stroke snowmobiles a day into the park and 78 snowcoaches.

The Park Service should have phased out snowmobiles years ago. Let’s hope that under an administration dedicated to science we can achieve this goal.

photo: Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by David Long.