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Yellowstone: Motorized Recreation

By the early 90s, snowmobiling in Yellowstone was huge business. Outfitters in Wyoming and Montana brought thousands of sledders into Yellowstone. The Park Service concluded last year that the 65,000 machines entering the park each winter threaten wildlife, pollute the air, endanger the health of Park employees, and destroy the experience for other visitors.

The Clinton Administration decided to phase out snowmobiles by next winter.

The issue, however, remains unresolved and the clash of values still resounds.

Jon Catton photo Jon Catton: "People who go into the park now don't hear the hiss and splash of a geyser nearly as much as they hear the buzz, whine and roar of snowmobiles. They are not seeing wildlife that's natural. They are seeing it in many cases stressed and fleeing from machines."
View Jon Catton interview

Craig Koll photo Craig Koll: "They want to eliminate access to the national park that all Americans have the right to visit. It's an elitist attitude."
View Craig Koll interview

Jon Catton: "What's truly elitist is to say I want to go into Yellowstone National Park and I want to go in the way I want to go in."

Rick Spencer photoRick Spencer: "What concerns me the most about them stopping snowmobiling in Yellowstone Park, is if they can do it there, they can do it anywhere, and that really concerns me."
View Rick Spencer interview

Teri Manning photoTeri Manning: "The extremists on the environmental side would like to have no one in the parks. On the other side, you have the extremists in the snowmobile community who want to ride everywhere regardless, and neither one is correct."
View Teri Manning interview

Debate over access to Yellowstone was well under way before the park even opened.

According to the warning of a Montana newspaper editor in 1872, under government control 'the Yellowstone Country will be remanded into a wilderness and rendered inaccessible to the great mass of travelers and tourists.'

The Bush Administration wants to reverse the phase-out of snowmobiles in Yellowstone. But John Sacklin firmly backs his agency's rationale for the ban.

John Sacklin photoJohn Sacklin: "When we looked at the quantity of snowmobile use, where it was occurring, and how it was occurring and looked at the impacts of that use, we believed that the best way to address the issue was to move to change the mode of transportation from snowmobiles to snow coaches."
View John Sacklin interview

John Keck photoJohn Keck: "When you come in on a snowcoach, you're in what's jokingly referred to as 'canned Spam.' You're stuffed into a small metal enclosure. If the driver agrees to stop you can stop. You lack some of the freedom to basically see these things for yourself. It changes the whole experience."
View John Keck interview

Idaho, Montana and Wyoming feared the collapse of the winter economies in communities surrounding the park.

So they demanded a voice in the preparation of a supplemental environmental impact statement to reconsider the ban. A Wyoming report claimed that the ban would result in the annual loss of $40 million in expenditures and tax revenues, plus one thousand jobs.

Craig Koll: "There are approximately 10 outfitters in the Jackson area, and I think all depend on Yellowstone for the majority of their business."

The rapidly accelerating two-stroke engine remains the choice for powder-busting, high-marking backcountry adventurers. But industry has responded to the Yellowstone controversy by developing a less polluting four-stroke engine.

John Keck: "Current snowmobiles do have an emissions problem; they do have noise problems. The industry will move forward, I feel very confident of that. The demand is there; they need to meet it."

Jon Catton: "We don't believe that the industry is genuinely wanting to produce a truly cleaner and quieter snowmobile. They have pressured the Environmental Protection Agency to set the bar very low, a weak standard. And the Environmental Protection Agency has so far responded and said, 'OK, that's what you want industry, that is where we are going to set the standard.'"

John Sacklin: "However, clean and quiet snowmobiles don't address wildlife concerns, don't necessarily address safety issues, don't necessarily address all other visitor experience kinds of questions."

Regardless of what happens in Yellowstone, the larger issue is motorized recreation on our millions of acres of national forest. Off-road vehicle use has more than doubled on public land in the past 10 years. In Wyoming, conflicts between skiers and snowmobilers are on the rise.

John Keck: "The highest amount of snowmobile use in Wyoming is currently occurring in the Snowy Range just west of Laramie. How do we coordinate with the Forest Service for other uses that should be active there?"

Winter recreation is essential for business owner Rick Spencer of Centennial.

Rick Spencer: "There's snowmobiling. We're five miles away from a real nice downhill area. There's some great cross-country skiing up here. There's snowshoeing, and the last few years, we're starting to get a lot of dog sledding."

Wyoming has heavily promoted snowmobiling on the Medicine Bow in an advertising campaign directed at Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Colorado. Local skiers, such as Patricia Dowd, blame the state for the motorized invasion of their tranquil winter hideaway.

Patricia Dowd photoPatricia Dowd: "There's obviously been a tremendous increase in the number of users of snowmobiles on the forest. As a result, skiers and people who sled—in the traditional meaning of sled, not a snowmobile sled—have been leaving the area. So, as a result I no longer go skiing there on the weekends in the back-country."
View Patricia Dowd interview

Susan Marsh photoSusan Marsh: "We see some kind of conflicts between use, and mostly that is tied to the increases of use. People are going places where they didn't five years ago. We have some places where you have to stay on the trail because there are moose, elk, other wildlife, and those areas are closed to all human entry. You can't ski. You can't walk there."
View Susan Marsh interview

Pam Lichtman photoPam Lichtman: "We are working very closely with the forest service and the Game and Fish Department . . . to try and educate the public as to where these areas are and why they are important to wildlife and why they need to stay out of them."
View Pam Lichtman interview

Teri Manning: "If I see someone who's committing a no-no, I'm not afraid to go up and tell them, 'Don't poach the snow, don't go in areas that are closed. Don't endanger the animals who are out there trying to survive through the winter'."

The issue of snowmobiling in Yellowstone should be settled by next November. But federal land managers, with their multiple-use mandate, will grapple for years to come with the issue of snowmobiling and motorized recreation in general.

Rick Spencer: "It's tourism that keeps the friendly store going. Without them coming in year 'round, I'm out of here."

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