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Wildlands Issues Special Report

Yellowstone Winter Use Plan(s)

Note: Picture at right Photo Source: Bob Zellar, Billings Gazette

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Over the past ten years, snowmobile use has skyrocketed nationwide in park areas, thanks to a new generation of more powerful machines suited to the challenging terrain. During the winter of 1999, the National Park Service began considering how to deal with a rapid increase in snowmobile visitation at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. By spring of 2000, a gradual phase-out of snowmobiles in Yellowstone was ordered, to take place by the winter of 2002-3. Snowmobile enthusiasts and the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce took exception, and a suit was filed to block the change. On June 29, 2001, the Bush Administration suspended the new rules, calling for a Supplemental Evironmental Impact Statement that took into account the changes that may take place upon the introduction of a new generation of quieter, cleaner snowmobiles. A revised rule was released by the Bush administration in 2003, allowing 1100 snowmobiles a day, with 80% being part of guided tours.

This revised plan met with legal resistance, and during 2004 dueling Federal Courts in Wyoming and DC threw out both the Clinton and Bush plans, respectively. The Park Service responded in the fall of 2004 with a temporary 3-year plan, which allowed 720 snowmobiles a day, all required to be part of guided tours, and initiated a new EIS process in the hopes of generating a long-term Winter Use Plan. The third "final" plan was released in March 2007, settling on 540 snowmobiles a day, and again, requiring all to be part of guided tours.

Ever since the establishment of the "guided-tour-only" requirement, total snowmobile use in Yellowstone has declined dramatically. From an average of 840 machines per day (with peak weekend totals of 1600-2000), daily averages have fallen to 263 since 2004, when the tour requirement took effect. Meanwhile, snowcoach ridership has nearly doubled. Still, sound monitoring has found that vehicles were audible over half the day in many popular areas, including at Old Faithful 68% of the time, and 59% of the time at Madison Junction.

NPS 2005 Yellowstone Soundscape Monitoring Report - Includes detailed charts showing noise levels (in dB) and percent of time that motorized vehicles were audible, both on average and hour-by-hour, at several stations where autonomous recorders kept tabs on noise. [READ REPORT(pdf)]

NPS 2007 Yellowstone Soundscape Monitoring Report - [DOWNLOAD REPORT (pdf)]

News Archive (most recent first)

National Park Service online resources related to the Winter Use Plan:
Yellowstone NP Winter Use Planning [WEBSITE]
Yellowstone NP Winter Use Technical Documents (including studies of noise, animal reactions, and air quality) [WEBSITE]
NPS Park Planning pages on Yellowstone [WEBSITE]

12/08: Yellowstone Snowmobile Season Opens with Little Snow, Amidst Return of the Dueling Judges - The winter season opened at Yellowstone this week with too little snow for snowmobile use, while Park managers once again found themselves scrambling to respond to dueling Federal Court opinions on their last proposal, released in November 2007. That "final" plan proposed a cap of 540 snowmobiles and was challenged in court by both environmental advocates (who said that number was too high) and the state of Wyoming (who said it was too low). As with the previous Bush plan, both challenges succeeded, and contradicted each other. In a DC Federal Court, Judge Emmett Sullivan ruled that the 540 limit was "arbitrary and capricious" and called on the NPS to lower it; in November, the Park Service proposed an interim plan to allow 318 machines per day while they developed a long-term solution. But, before that plan was finalized, Wyoming District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer stepped into the fray, decrying (but not overturning) Sullivan's ruling, saying that a local court should have jurisdiction, as well as that in his view the Park Service review had been sufficient and the 540-plan should not have been overturned. His ruling has been interpreted by the Park Service and Bush Administration to mandate a return to the previous interim limit of 720 snowmobiles per day while dealing with the Sullivan decision (a rule allowing 720 was announced in early December), though other observers suggest he left the Park Service with the power to set its own number. Yikes! In the real world of West Yellowstone winter tourism businesses, the expectation is that recent years' low snowmobile numbers will continue. The actual number of snowmobiles entering the park averaged 296 per day last winter with the highest day seeing 557; see AEI's Special Report for more on why numbers have been low for several years. "By the way the reservations are coming in, I decided against ordering more snowmobiles," said Jerry Johnson, who's quota of allowable rentals per day had fluctuated from 50 to 37 to 20, and then back to 50, over these tumultuous months. He estimated that reservations were running about 25 percent lower than this time last year. Sources: Billing Gazette, 12/1/08 [READ ARTICLE] Sources: Billing Gazette, 12/1/08 [READ ARTICLE] Sources: Billing Gazette, 11/13/08 [READ ARTICLE] Sources: Greater Yellowstone Coalition Press Release 12/9/08 [READ ARTICLE]

11/08: Park Service Proposes First Real Limits on Snowmobiles at Yellowstone Since Guided Tours Provision- Responding to a September Federal Court ruling that tossed the 3rd Yellowstone Winter Use Plan on the cusp of a new winter season, Park managers have released a proposed interim plan that will, for the first time since the original Clinton-era plan, reduce the actual numbers of snow machines in the Park on most of the busy winter holidays and weekends. Earlier plans had capped snowmobiles at 720, then more recently, 540 per day; the interim proposal will allow 318 per day. Last winter, an average of 290 snowmobiles entered the park each day, but on many weekends and other peak days, numbers reached 400-500, with the single highest day seeing 557. While last year, even that peak day was far below the "limit" of 720, the new limit of 318 was exceeded on 29 days out of the 82-day season. Snowmobile use is far down from the peaks in the 1990's, due primarily to a provision in the 1st Bush plan that requires all snowmobiles to be part of guided tours, rather than allowing self-guided exploration along Park roads; since the establishment of the "guided-tour-only" requirement, total snowmobile use in Yellowstone has declined from an average of 840 machines per day (with peak weekend totals of 1600-2000), to daily averages of 263 (and peaks of 400-550) since 2004, when the tour requirement took effect. While the original Clinton plan aimed for a 3-year phased-in ban on snowmobiles, all plans proposed since Bush's first one have set daily caps above the generally-seen peak use numbers, effectively affirming current use levels. This proposed interim plan will force local businesses that run tours to turn away customers for the first time since the guided use provision was added. The current average use of 263 snowmobiles is already exceeding the noise standards set by the Park Service, with snowmobiles audible for over half the day in 21 square miles of the Park; Park Service models suggest that 540 machines would increase this area hearing machines over half the time to 62 square miles. Sources: Jackson Hole Star-Tribune, 11/5/08 [READ ARTICLE] Jackson Hole Daily, 11/4/08 [READ ARTICLE] Wyoming Business Report, 11/4/08 [READ ARTICLE] Park Service Planning, Environment, and Public Comment Website [SEE AND COMMENT ON PROPOSED INTERIM PLAN]

9/08: (scratch that previous entry)....Third Yellowstone Snowmobile Plan Tossed by Federal Court - The eternal cycle of Yellowstone "Winter Use Plans" looks to continue for at least one more round, as the third final National Park Service rule governing snowmobile access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks has been tossed out by a Federal District Court after challenges form a consortium of environmental organizations.

Photo: New York Times

DC-based judge Emmet Sullivan found that the NPS plan that would allow 540 snowmobiles to enter the parks each day was "arbitrary and capricious," in that the current average use of 263 snowmobiles is already exceeding the noise standards set by the Park Service (with the additional snowmobiles likely to further increase the area in which snowmobiles are audible for over half the day from 21 square miles to 63 square miles) , and that NPS had “utterly failed to explain why none of the seven alternatives would constitute impairment or unacceptable impacts" (despite NPS figures that suggest an increase in exhaust gasses and particulates of 18-100%), and that NPS "failed to provide a rational explanation for the source of the 540 snowmobile limit." The case turned on how to interpret the Organic Act, a 1916 law that established the Park Service and charged it with a primary task to "conserve park resources and values." The Act allows impacts if they do not impair park resources; the NPS was arguing that the Act only prohibits "unacceptable impacts;" the Judge noted that the Act requires a stricter standard, "to 'provide for the enjoyment' of the parks' resources and values in 'such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations'...This is not blanket permission to have fun in the parks in any way the NPS sees fit," concluded Sullivan. “There have been four studies and $10 million spent, and every study shows the best way to get people in the park and protect it is through snow coach access, not snowmobiles,” said Chris Mehl, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont., one of the parties to the lawsuit. “This upholds the promise and possibility of Yellowstone.” Jack Welch of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized use advocacy group, called the decision “bizarre and far reaching” and said Sullivan’s ruling could severely limit public access in national parks across the country. While the ruling does leave some uncertainties for the 2008-09 winter, the Park Service has the power to enact a temporary winter-use plan. “We’re planning to be open to visitors for the winter season beginning December 15 as scheduled,” noted NPS spokesman Al Nash. Under interim rules in force for the past three winters, 720 snowmobiles were allowed to enter the park each day, though actual use was far less, primarily due to a requirement that all snowmobiles be part of guided tours. A new interim rule will likely be issued to govern this winter's activities, using either the 720 or 540-machine limit. Rep. Colin Simpson of Cody noted that it's possible the Monday ruling “reverts back to the 2000 (Clinton-era) Record of Decision that phased out snowmobiles” in the park, adding that “I thought the original Record of Decision was arbitrary and capricious.” On the same day that Sullivan threw out the plan, a very different challenge to the Rule was receiving a hearing in a Wyoming Court: the State of Wyoming is arguing for a return of the 720-machine limit, and for some of those riders to be free to ride on their own, without guides. Federal District Judge Clarence Brimmer, who submitted his resignation two years ago but is still awaiting a replacement, ruled against a similar challenge mounted in 2006 when the guides-only rule was first instigated. These same two judges have presided over dueling cases since early in the Bush administration; Brimmer ruled that the Clinton-era planned phase-out of snowmobiles (Winter Use Plan 1) was illegal, while Sullivan ruled that the Bush plan (Winter Use Plan 2) was also invalid. That impasse led to the current Winter Use Plan 3, now also back up in the air. Sources: New York Times, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Casper Star-Tribune, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Cody Enterprise, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Jackson Hole News and Guide, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Kansas City Infozine, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Washington Post, 9/15/08 [READ ARTICLE]

11/07: Latest Yellowstone Snowmobile Plan Signed, Will Take Effect Next Winter - Culminating a planning process that began in 2004 as dueling Federal Court rulings left both the Clinton and Bush plans in legal limbo, the Park Service has signed the latest Winter Use Plan for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The Billings Gazette hopefully notes that: "The decision is intended to bring to a close the long-running controversy over winter recreation in Yellowstone, a dispute that has roiled for more than a decade and included several lawsuits, dizzying stacks of studies and hundreds of thousands of public comments." Indeed it may, though with snowmobile advocates still dissatisfied with the requirement that all riders be part of guided groups, and quiet use advocates pointing at measurements that show noise is audible over half the day in most popular areas, the chances of the plan being put into effect in the winter of 2008-9 remain uncertain at best. The plan allows 540 snowmobiles per day to enter the park, well over recent years' averages (depressed due to the guided tour requirement), but less than peaks of over 700 machines in previous years. Source: Billings Gazette, 11/21/07 [READ ARTICLE]

10/07: Final Yellowstone Plan Reduces Snowmobiles, But Maybe Not Noise - The permanent Winter Use Plan released last week proposes a reduction in the daily maximum number of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone National Park, while at the same time reducing the average number of machines in each guided tour group. The end result, according to projections included with the plan, is likely to be a slight increase in the area of the park in which snowmobiles or snowcoaches can be heard. The daily maximum will be reduced from 720 snowmobiles to 540, with an average group size of 11. The new proposal, to take effect in the winter of 2008-9, "would have potentially more groups traveling through, even though it would be an overall (smaller) maximum number of machines," said Al Nash, Yellowstone spokesman. About 13% of the park would be affected by snow vehicle noise, up a percentage point from the old plan, while there may be a slight decrease in the number of hours in which vehicles are heard more than 50% of the time. However, an analysis by the Coalition of Natoinal Park Service Retirees finds that the acreage in which vehicles will be heard over half the time will triple, from 21 square miles, to 63 square miles. A few more snowcoaches will be allowed under the permanent plan (83, up from 78), with new quieter snowcoaches phased in starting next winter; all snowmobiles will need to be the slightly quieter four stroke models. Actual snowmobile numbers have been far below the maximum levels allowed (averaging under 300 per day), apparently because of snowmobilers' tendency to want to ride without being part of guided tours. Source: Billings Gazette, 9/28/07 [READ ARTICLE] Albuquerque Tribune, 10/26/07 [READ ARTICLE]

9/07: Snow Vehicle Noise Still Exceeds Yellowstone Goals - A National Park Service report on noise levels recorded in Yellowstone during last winter's recreational season confirms that snowmobile and snowcoach noise remains more omnipresent than managers desire. Snowmobiles remain the source of most noise intrusions (heard 60% more often than snow coaches), while the bus-like snowcoaches created the loudest sounds, often exceeding the maximum goal of 70dB (equivalent to a vacuum cleaner in a house). Vehicles were audible at Old Faithful 68% of the time between 8am and 4pm, and 59% of the time at Madison Junction. This most recent study was done between Dec. 20, 2006, and March 11 when, on average, 30 snowcoaches and 299 snowmobiles came into the park each day. Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 9/2/07 [READ ARTICLE] [DOWNLOAD REPORT (2.1MB pdf)]

6/07: EPA Criticizes Park Service Plan for Yellowstone Snowmobiles - A new proposal for snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park doesn't do enough to safeguard air quality, human health, wildlife and quiet spaces, the Environmental Protection Agency said. Agency officials said the National Park Service should either change its “preferred alternative” or pick another option. The EPA letter said earlier moves to reduce snowmobile numbers and require “cleaner and quieter” machines have led to significant improvements, but the latest plan raises concerns – especially when compared with the option of allowing only snowcoaches. The Park Service has said the snowcoach-only option is the best way to protect Yellowstone's natural resources. But park officials have continued to look for ways to allow a limited number of snowmobiles while minimizing their impact. Compared with the snowcoach-only option, the park's latest “preferred alternative” would lead to a fivefold increase in carbon monoxide emissions, a 17-fold increase in hydrocarbons, and double the amount of acres in Yellowstone where snow machines would be heard, the EPA said. The Park Service's “desired conditions” for winter recreation may not be strict enough to protect Yellowstone's natural resources, including its pristine air quality and natural quiet, the EPA said. Source: AP, 6/19/07 [READ ARTICLE]

3/07: Yellowstone Snowmobile Plan, Take Three, Released - The long-awaited Draft Environmental Impact Statement for managing winter use has been released, and contains few surprises, thanks to a series of preliminary releases by the Park Service over the past year. While the final preferred alternative won't be announced until after a round of public comments, it appears that the current status quo will largely be maintained. Snowmobiles will be allowed in numbers a close to historic averages, but greater than have actually been entering in recent years, but all will be required to be part of guided tours, much to the chagrin of the snowmobile community. A key pass from the East gate outside Cody, Wyoming, will be closed to snowmobiles due to the amount of work needed to keep it safe from avalanches. Environmental advocates, along with every former Park Service Director save the most recent, continue to call for snowmobiles to be banned, as decided in the initial winter use plan during the Clinton administration, due to air quality and noise concerns. Current snowmobile and snowcoach use creates audible noise for park visitors during the majority of the day. A proposed regulation will be released in late spring, with the final EIS and Record of Decision planned for fall. Sources: Jackson Hole News and Guide, 3/28/07 [READ ARTICLE], 3/27/07 (snowmobile advocates) [READ ARTICLE] North County Times, 3/27/07 (Former Directors' Letter) [READ ARTICLE]

3/07: House Committee Grills NPS Chief on Recurring Yellowstone Snowmobile Studies, Newest One Due in March - In a hearing before the House Natural Parks Subcommittee, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., complained to NPS Director Mary Bomar that the Park Service is now in the midst of its fourth Yellowstone winter-use plan, all of which have come to the same conclusion: that the environmentally preferred option is to phase out the use of snowmobiles in favor of snowcoaches. “You keep on doing the same studies, and the results all come out the same,” said Holt, noting that the Park Service has spent $10 million on the scientific research underpinning the winter-use plans. Bomar acknowledged the high degree of controversy, since the phase-out of snowmobiles was first required in the closing days of  the Clinton administration in 2001. Three Park Service studies have concluded that replacing snowmobile use in Yellowstone with the more environmentally friendly snowcoach access would best preserve “the unique historic, cultural, and natural resources associated with the parks” (Yellowstone and Grand Teton) and yield “the least impacts to air quality, water quality and natural soundscapes.” However, following conflicting federal court rulings on the snowmobile issue, the Bush administration ordered a fourth study -- which will be available for public comment beginning this month. Bomar said it would be inappropriate to comment on the new study, as it is still in draft form and the public comment period hasn't yet begun. Park officials have said that their preference is to allow up to 720 snowmobiles per day in Yellowstone and 140 per day in Grand Teton and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway; require best available technology to limit noise and air pollution; and require commercial guides within Yellowstone itself. Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 3/2/07 [READ ARTICLE]

11/06: Yellowstone Staff Releases Draft Long-term Winter Use Plan - Round three of the recurring quest to set a long-term plan for use of snowmobiles at Yellowstone took a step forward with a preliminary release of the newest Draft EIS. Yellowstone planners propose to continue with roughly the same interim plan they proposed two years ago in their effort to break the impasse between the Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles and the Bush administration plan to allow more snowmobile use, both of which were tossed by dueling federal courts. The current draft plan suggests allowing 720 snowmobiles per day, and maintaining the requirement that all snowmobiles be part of guided tours (this requirement has kept actual snowmobile numbers under the maximum allowable for the past two winters). For now, comments are being solicited from states and counties bordering the Park; a public comment period will come following the release of the DEIS in a couple months. The new plan will go into effect for the winter of 2008-9. The noise impacts of the new plan are troubling, as it may increase the very traffic that is causing repeated noise intrusions at popular tourist spots: “Yellowstone has a noise problem with 250 snowmobiles a day,” Jon Catton, an environmentalist in Bozeman, said. “The park service says it already interferes with visitors’ ability to hear erupting geysers and wildlife. This proposal will make it worse by allowing a threefold increase.” A spokesman for the park, Al Nash, said, “All of our measures would meet federal and state air quality guidelines,” because of new technology. Noise problems, Mr. Nash said, are largely caused by older snow coaches, an over-snow bus on rubber treads or skis. The new plan requires such coaches to meet stricter sound and emission levels and limits them to 78 a day; on average, 32 now enter the park daily. Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 11/21/06 [READ ARTICLE] New York Times, 11/21/06 (sub) [READ ARTICLE]
Followup: EPA Questions Park Service Assumptions: In its comments to a preliminary draft of the new Yellowstone Winter Use Plan, the EPA has questioned whether the proposal jibes with agencywide management policies updated last year intended to limit effects on the natural environment, minimize harassment of wildlife, preserve quiet in the parks and perpetuate the best air quality possible. While the draft considered any impacts on air quality or visitor experience to be "minor," the EPA urged such effects to be given more attention. A final draft is expected to be released this spring, with a final plan perhaps in place for next winters' season. Other preliminary commments, mostly from area counties, urged a relaxation of the requirements that snowmobiles be required to be part of guided tours. Source: Billings Gazette, 1/16/07 [READ ARTICLE]

3/06: Yellowstone Releases Preliminary Snowmobile Alternatives - Breaking from traditional practice, the Park Service has released a statement summarizing the alternatives being considered as they develop a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for winter management. The range from a complete ban on snowmobiles, to increasing current limits and re-introducing non-guided snowmobiling on a limited basis. Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said it is likely that a variation on some of the options would be incorporated into the draft environmental study expected out this fall. He called the release of the preliminary alternatives - the centerpiece of two open houses this week - an extra step in the planning process, and an opportunity to "share with people our thinking." Though there will be no formal comment period, the Park Service still welcomed public insights. Source: The Missoulan, 3/14/06 [READ ARTICLE]

2/06: Snowmobilers Push for More Access - Wyoming Governor Bruce Sweitzer enjoyed a snowmobile trip in Yellowstone this winter, and immediately said he'd be doing all he can to promote the experience to others. Meanwhile, at public meetings and in a letter-writing campaign, snowmobile enthusiasts are urging the Park to allow access outside of the current commercially guided tours; they are suggesting adding two tiers of access, to account for about half of total users, one for private tours guided by individuals who have received a simple training, and one for non-guided snowmobiles. Recent Park Service studies have shown that some 20 percent of the wildlife in the park, already stressed in winter, responded negatively to snowmobiles. Critics of snowmobiles say this is still too much of an impact, while supporters say it is low Sources: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 2/8/06 [READ ARTICLE] New York Times, 2/28/06 [READ ARTICLE] Casper Star-Tribune, 2/20/06 [READ ARTICLE]

2/06: Snowcoaches Catching On - The use of snowcoaches is increasing, as visitors come to appreciate the relative quiet and comfort provided by the tours. Sources: NewWest, 2/6/06 [READ ARTICLE] USA Today, 2/17/06 [READ ARTICLE]

1/06: Yellowstone Emissions, Noise Steady as 4-Stroke Engines Become Standard - Contrary to expectations of National Park Service planners, the introduction of modern cleaner, quieter snowmobiles has not had much effect on emmissions or sound levels. The "best available technology" requirement has, since 2001, led to the current use of only 4-stroke engines. While individual machines are not significantly cleaner, air quality in general has improved, thanks to a precipitous drop in the number of snowmobiles in the park, now that all riders must be part of a guided tour. Park employees at the West Yellowstone entrance were subjected to significantly reduced noise and emissions in 2004/5, after years of dangerous levels of exposure. However, noise monitoring at several locations in the park reveals that targets for quiet have been exceeded regularly, especially in mid-day. Noise levels are not dangerous, but motor noise is common. The management goal is that any given location will be free of motorized noise at least 25% of the time; while daily averages meet that (modest) goal at even the most popular spots (such as Old Faithful), recordings indicate that it is common for oversnow vehicles (including snow coaches) to be audible 80-90% of the time during peak hours; some days the level approached 100%. There remain other, more remote, yet accessible, locations, where noise intrusion is less intense. Meanwhile, legal wrangling is minimal this year, after a Wyoming judge who had previously resisted restrictions upheld the current NPS compromise management plan, in effect while a 3rd round of comment and planning is underway. Sources: Casper Star-Tribune, 1/22/06 [READ ARTICLE] Great Falls Tribune, 12/29/05 [READ ARTICLE] Heartland Institute News, 1/1/06 [READ ARTICLE]
NPS 2005 Yellowstone Soundscape Monitoring Report [READ REPORT(pdf)]

11/05: Yellowstone Business Rebounds Behind Diversified Recreation - Winter tourism in West Yellowstone is moving rapidly toward diversification, in response to new restrictions that allow snowmobiles only as part of guided tours. Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the largest concessions company in Yellowstone, is offering a slew of new services this winter, including more groomed trails for cross-country skiing, ice skating near Old Faithful and massage therapy at Snow Lodge. The company still offers snowmobile tours, but it's no longer the dominant force it once was in Yellowstone. So far, reservations this year are up about 10 percent over last year's lackluster turnout. Hoeninghausen said Xanterra's latest changes are just the opening steps in an attempt to keep Yellowstone's winter visitors happy. What hasn't changed, he said, is the allure of the park in the winter - howling wolves, shaggy bison, steaming geysers and the quiet of snow piled deep and far. The place sells itself. "It's like no other time of year," Hoeninghausen said. Source: Billings Gazette, 11/30/05 [READ ARTICLE]

11/05: Park Service Study Shows Noise, Air Quality Better at West Entrance - Results of monitoring during the 2005/5 winter season confirm the obvious: with far fewer snowmobiles entering the Park, Park employees were exposed to lower noise and air pollutant levels than in previous winters. The monitoring took place at the popular West Yellowstone entrance, where in recent years, gas masks were at times required. Last winter's visitation was much lower than in recent years (well below the limits established by the curren temporary plan), both because of the new requirements that all snowmobiles be part of guided tours, and the relative lack of snow. Monitoring will continue this winter. Source: Billings Gazette, 11/8/05 [READ ARTICLE]

2/05: Snowmobile Use Way Down in Yellowstone - It appears that the Bush revision of Yellowstone's winter use plan has not kept the floodgates open to snowmobiles as much as many feared. The daily caps on snowmobiles in the park have not been approached this year, as total snowmobile use continues to decline even after a precipitous drop last winter. The Bush administration replaced the planned Clinton ban on private snowmobiles with a plan that allowed numbers to remain high, but required all riders to be part of guided tours; it seems that many snowmobilers have chosen to ride independently in national forests, rather than as part of tours in Yellowstone. From a peak of nearly 30,000 snowmobile visits in January 2002, numbers for the past two Januaries have dropped to under 9,000. Snowcoach tours, advocated by the Clinton plan, are seeing a modest increase, and cross-country skiing is also on the rise. Local businesses are adapted to the changes. Scott Carsley of Yellowstone Alpen Guides, which provides snowcoaches and cross-country ski tours in the park, said his business has been improving the past several years. "We have seen a huge increase in the number of cross-country skiers in the park," Carsley said. "I think we're moving more into silent-sports enthusiasts, more into muscle power perhaps." The kind of visitor is also changing. Carsley said his company is seeing more people from milder climates, including the South and Pacific Northwest. Randy Roberson of Yellowstone Vacations has put more emphasis on snowcoaches in his tour business. The 22-year-old company spent years as one of the top snowmobile rental companies in West Yellowstone. The company has recently added several "luxury" snowcoaches to its fleet. "The positive response is just unbelievable," Roberson said. "A lot of our snowmobile customers are converting to snowcoach customers." Source: Billings Gazette, 2/9/05 [READ ARTICLE]
Related: Greenie Gives Current Snowmobile Usage Thumbs Up - A letter from Larry Cline, published in the 4/4/05 High Country News: " an ardent greenie and retired employee of the Dept of Interior, I must admit the new (snowmobile) rules are a good compromise. . . No more private machines screaming along the roads at breakneck speeds, as I was told by a snowcoach driver. No more park employees at the gates wearing gas masks. And everyone, even snowmobilers, slows way down for bison on the roads. Yes, one can hear them for a moment, if you are on a roadway as a group goes by. But while on the ski trails one can seldom hear them. So let's let by-gones be by-gones and simply enjoy the park: it is there for all of us."
More late-season 2005 reports:
Lacking Snow, Yellowstone Snowmobiling Suffers Interior Secretary Norton favors return of unguided sleds. Source: WESH, 3/10/05 [READ ARTICLE]
You Don't Need a Motor to Experience Yellowstone Secretary Norton Neglects non-motorized users; after "much more ordinary" snowcoach ride, "with an unenthusiastic shrug, she added, "It's not as special as a snowmobile." Source: Aspen Weekly/Writers on the Range, 3/6/05 [READ ARTICLE]
Snowmobile Sales Down - After years of steady increases, sales of new snowmobiles have dropped steadily since 2002, though the number of licensed riders is at an all-time high. Warm winters in the upper midwest, along with rising prices of new machines, are blamed for the decreases. (this is a very comprehensive, informative article on snowmobile trends, from usage to technological changes) Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle 3/21/05 [READ ARTICLE]
Explosives Dropped in Yellowstone to Keep Pass Road Avalanche-free Road serving east entrance snowmobiles and snow coaches is used by 3% of winter visitors Source: The Denver Channel, 3/10/05 [READ ARTICLE]
New Plan Keeps Snowmobilers Away Earlier coverage of the marked decline in snowmobile use under the new rules: From a peak of nearly 30,000 snowmobile visits in January 2002, numbers for the past two Januaries have dropped to under 9,000. Source: Billings Gazette, 2/9/05 [READ ARTICLE]
Blue Ribbon Coalition Files to Intervene in Pending Case
Responding to ongoing pressure from environmental groups fighting the current Park Service snowmobile plan, the BlueRibbon Coalition, a motorized use advocacy group, has filed to become part of the most recent suit. "We have been involved in every significant development in this saga, and we remain dedicated to preserving a reasonable winter use system that includes snowmobiles," stated Jack Welch, President of the BlueRibbon Coalition. The latest case was filed on November 4, 2004, by the Fund for Animals and others, challenges the Park's assessment of the impact of groomed roads on wildlife movements. Source: Press Release 2/1/05 [READ PRESS RELEASE]

11/04: Park Service Releases Snowmobile Plan for Yellowstone - In what has become a scenario resembling the movie "Groundhog Day" for local communities, snowmobile enthusiasts, and environmental organizations, yet another Winter Use Plan for Yellowstone has been released, and will likely head directly to the courts. The most recent one represents the Park Services' attempt to juggle conflicting rulings from two federal courts which have in effect thrown out both the Clinton and Bush plans. DC Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan is expected to review this plan before it goes into effect; he had ordered the Park Service to release the plan with time for his review (last year's interim plan was made public only days before the winter season began). The new plan, to be in effect for three winters, would allow up to 720 guided snowmobiles to enter Yellowstone daily. All must use modern four-stroke engines, which release less pollution and are somewhat quieter. These numbers are lower than the earlier Bush Administration proposal, which called for 1100 per day total, and less than pre-Winter Use Plan averages of 840 per day or peaks of 1600 or more per day; the Clinton-era Plan would have phased out all private snowmobiles this winter, allowing motorized access only via snow coaches. Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 11/5/04 [READ ARTICLE] ENS, 11/10/04 [READ ARTICLE(sub)] NPS Press Release, 11/4/05 [READ PRESS RELEASE]
Related: Plan Challenged on Three Fronts - Nearly as soon as the ink was dry on the new Yellowstone Winter Use Plan, finalized November 10, it was challenged in court by both environmentalists and a local tourism group. A coalition of environmental organizations claim that the Park Service did not adequately address the effect of groomed roads on wildlife. especially biison, who use the roads to travel more widely than they may otherwise do during winter. Also quick out of the chute was a challenge by the Wyoming Lodging and Resaurant Association, which challenged the NPS rule on the grounds that it did not consider a "no action" alternative, and did not take a "hard look" at the option of allowing individuals to motor in the park without tour guides. Taking a leisurely several days to file was the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which is not challenging the proposed plan per se, but wants the Park Service to closely monitor the effects of the levels of snowmobile use being proposed, and to be willing to do "adaptive management" if needed during the 3 years that this plan is scheduled to be in effect. Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 11/6/04 (groomed roads) [READ ARTICLE] Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 11/11/04 (tourism challenge) [READ ARTICLE] Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 11/14/04 (monitoring) [READ ARTICLE] Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 11/13/04 (overview) [READ ARTICLE]
Snowmobile Ban is Ruled Illegal - The Wyoming federal court which was the location of the legal challenge to the Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone has ruled that the ban was politically motivated, and thus illegal. Judge Brimmer, who last winter dueled with a DC Federal Court over the contentious issue, explicitly rejected an argument that the Park Service must allow snowmobiles, stating that the Service has the right to manage their lands as they see fit, given a scientific basis to their decisions. Meanwhile, in the DC court, Judge Sullivan is preparing to rule on a more comprehensive case, which includes the findings of additional studies that have taken place since the Wyoming suit was filed four years ago. He has ordered the Park Service to submit rules for this winter to him by mid-November. Finally, tax receipts from last year indicate that West Yellowstone's economy was not significantly affected by the drastic drop in snowmobile numbers that resulted from the uncertainty over rules for the winter. Source: ENS, 10/15/04 [READ ARTICLE(sub)] Wilderness Society Press Release, 10/15/04 [SEE NEWS RELEASE]

9/30/04: Park Service Nixes Snowmobile Demonstration in DC - A permit to operate 11 stationary snowmobiles in a park across the street from the Department of Interior office has been denied by the National Park Service. The Campagn to Protect Public Lands hoped to demonstrate the noise and pollution impact of the number of snowmobiles that the NPS has proposed to be allowed to travel together in Yellowstone this winter. CPAL Director Peter Altman said, "It is mind boggling to me that this permit was rejected. If 11 stationary snowmobiles with their engines running are inappropriate for an urban environment with cars, trucks, buses, planes and trains, what on earth makes NPS think that 720 machines a day make any sense in a pristine natural place like Yellowstone?" The NPS told Altman his application had been turned down because, “It’s a resource issue,” the term NPS uses to refer to use of park space that is judged to be incompatible with the environment in question. Altman said, “A National Park Service supervisor even called back after we were turned down to suggest we should have the snowmobile demonstration outside the park. And that’s funny, because that’s precisely what we’ve been suggesting when it comes to snowmobiles at Yellowstone." Source: ENS, 9/30/04 [READ ARTICLE(sub)]

7/2/04: Yellowstone Snowmobiles Remain in Legal Limbo - Park Service planners are scrambling to comply with conflicting rulings from Federal Courts in Wyoming and DC. The DC judge, Emmit Sullivan, has modified his earlier ruling that re-enstated the Clinton snowmobile ban, in response to a Park Service petition seeking a path to reconciling his rejection of the Bush plan with a Wyoming judge's rejection of the Clinton plan. Sullivan now holds that while the Park Service need not enforce the Clinton plan, it must accept his ruling that the Bush plan was scientifically unsound. He further called on the Park to issue its planned rules for this winter at least a month before the start of the season; last year, the revised plan was announced just days before the season, triggering a rush of last-minute litigation. Meanwhile, Wyoming Federal Judge Clarence Brimmer's ruling that the Clinton ban imposes unacceptible costs on the local economy has been appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Clinton plan, had it been implemented, would have reduced snowmobile numbers last winter and banned them for the upcoming season; this plan was initially challenged in Brimmer's court, and the Bush administration settled out of court, initiating the second round of planning that resulted in the plan that Sullivan rejected. Just for good measure, the Park Service is doing yet another round of internal environmental analysis, which it hopes to release in August. Source: ENS, 7/2/04 [READ ARTICLE(sub)]

6/18/04: House Rejects Yellowstone Snowmobile Ban - The Department of Interior's spending bill was passed by the House after defeating an amendment prohibiting the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The measure lost by 26 votes; last year it failed by a single vote. The Congressional action was an attempt to put into congressional law a ban approved by the NPS under the Clinton Administration, which has been tied up in the courts ever since. Source: ENS, 6/18/04 [READ ARTICLE(sub)]

4/20/04: Four-stroke Snowmobiles Not Quiet as Expected - The Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees (CCNPSR) has released results from measurements made this spring in Yellowstone National Park that suggest that the new-generation four-stroke machines are nearly as loud as the older two-stroke engines. The four-stroke snowmobile test results, compiled in an as yet unreleased study conducted in March for the National Park Service, show that 18 out of 20 snowmobile tests generated peak noise levels in excess of 100 decibels. That level is far above Yellowstone's new snowmobile noise standard, which promised to reduce snowmobile noise "at full throttle to no more than 73 decibels." Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 4/16/04 [READ ARTICLE] Grist, 4/20/04 [READ ARTICLE]

2/11/04: Second Judge Suspends Return of Clinton Snowmobile Plan - In the latest twist in the Yellowstone snowmobile saga, a Wyoming federal court has reopened the park to increased numbers of private snowmobiles this winter, overturning a DC-area Federal court ruling in December that re-enstated the Clinton-era phase-out of private machines. The dueling decisions are not exactly contradictory: the DC judge ruled that the Bush plan was invalid (finding that it was politically, rather than scientifically, motivated), while the Wyoming judge placed a temporary restraining order on the Clinton plan, due to its encroachment on the livelihoods of local residents. With both plans now facing legal hurdles, it's anyone's guess what will come next. The Wyoming court had been poised to consider legal challenges to the original Clinton ban in 2001; that case was suspended when a settlement by the Bush administration led to the second round of public input and planning. Temporary rules issued in the wake of this most recent court ruling will increase the numbers of snowmobiles from about 500 to about 800 per day in Yellowstone for the rest of this winter; all will continue to be part of guided tours. Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 3/11/04 [READ ARTICLE] ENS 2/19/04 [READ ARTICLE] AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 2/11/04 [READ ARTICLE]
UPDATE: Contempt Hearing Delayed -
DC Federal Court judge Sullivan rejected requests from the Bush administration and snowmobile litgants to transfer consideration of the snowmobile ban to the Wyoming court. He also delayed his scheduled contempt hearing until April. Source: Wildlands CPR newsletter, 3/22/04

12/17/03: Yellowstone Snowmobile Ban "On Again" - A federal judge in Washington, DC overturned the Bush Administration's revised Winter Use Plan for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks on the eve of the winter snowmobile season. Calling the ban "severely flawed" and "completely politically driven", US District Judge Emmet Sullivan re-instated the Clinton-era plan, which called for a phase-out of snowmobiles; this would be the final winter of private snowmobile use, with bus-like snow coaches providing motorized access in the future. Sullivan also pointed the finger at the administration for the last-minute timing of the decision, which threw local outfitters for a loop on the eve of their busiest season; the Interior Department delayed issuing the official "final rule" until six days before the season was to open. Bill Dart, BlueRibbon Coalition Public Lands Director, commented, "The new decision allows very limited commercial guide access to the park at levels less than 25% of historical use and that is wrong." An appeal by motorized recreation advocates asked for a stay of Sullivan's decision; the immediate stay was denied, but the appeal will proceed. In addition, a separate federal lawsuit in Wyoming, challenging the Clinton plan, may be re-opened; the renewed planning process that resulted in the Bush plan was the result of an out of court settlement that suspended that suit in 2001. Sources: ENS, 12/17/03 [READ ARTICLE] Bluewater Network (anti-snowmobiles), 12/17/03 [READ PRESS RELEASE(pdf)] BlueRibbon Coalition (pro-snowmobiles), 12/17/03 [READ PRESS RELEASE]
Related: New lawsuit challenges all motorized access, including snowcoaches - A new suit by Bluewater Network and others holds that road/trail grooming (which accomodates both snowmobiles and snowcoaches) distorts wildlife distributions, leading bison to stray out of the park into private lands, where they are often shot in fear of infections they may pass to cattle. Judge Sullivan has ordered the Department of the Interior to do a formal study of the effects of such grooming on wildlife movements in and around Yellowstone. Source: High Country News, 1/19/04 [READ ARTICLE]

7/28/03: Snowmobiles Win Squeaker in the House - The House of Representatives came within a whisker of reinstating the snowmobile ban at Yellowstone; an amendment to the Interior Appropriations Bill calling for the use of snowcoaches only in the national park tied at 212-212. A majority was needed to approve the amendment; the original vote was a 211-209 victory for the ban, but arm-twisting led to one unidentified vote being reversed. The Senate is expected to take up a similar provision in the fall. Source: Wilderness Society, 7/28/03 [SEE ROLLCALL VOTE LIST]

5/20/03: Former Park Service Directors Unite in Objection to New Plan - In an unprecedented move, former National Park Service Directors who served under Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton have co-written a letter that condemns the new Winter Use Plan. It reads, in part, "The choice over snowmobile use in Yellowstone is a choice between upholding the founding principle of our national parks--stewardship on behalf of all visitors and future generations--or catering to a special interest in a manner that would damage Yellowstone's resources and threaten public health. The latter choice would set an entirely new course for America's national parks." Source: Wilderness Society Press Release, 5/20/03 [READ LETTER]

4/16/03: Record Number of Snowmobile Citations in Yellowstone, for Second Winter in Row - The winter of 2002/3 saw a record 350 citations issued to snowmobile operators; infractions included entering prohibited areas, careless driving, underage driving and speeding. The Park Service has increased ranger patrols along the western edge of Yellowstone in recent years after repeated problems with illegal snowmobiling in that area. Since Jan. 1, rangers have logged 4,000 miles on patrol while looking for illegal snowmobiling in the backcountry. Source: Wildlands CPR press release, 4/16/03 [WEBSITE]

2/20/03: Yellowstone Snowmobile Plan Officially Released - The Department of Interior has released the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the revised Winter Use Plan at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The final Record of Decision is expected to be signed in late March. After a new round of study and public comments (360,000 of them, more than ever), the National Park Service has decided to allow up to 1100 snowmobiles a day into Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This is higher than the recent averages of 840 per day, but lower than the weekend peaks of 1600-2000 per day. A significant decrease in peak traffic through the main gate in West Yellowstone (550 per day, down from peak days of 1200) will disperse the impacts; this will likely decrease intense impacts, but also spread moderate impacts into more areas. In addition, 80 percent of the traffic will be part of guided tours, and new, cleaner and (somewhat) quieter machines will be phased in, starting with commercial rentals in 2003 and including private machines in 2004. The new limits take effect in the 2003/4 winter season. Meanwhile, advocates of the ban, including the Wilderness Society, plan to work with Congressional allies to craft a legislative ban or reduction in motorized recreation in Yellowstone. Source: NPS Press Release, 2/20/03 [READ PRESS RELEASE] The SEIS is available for download or on CD [DOWNLOAD SEIS]
Articles on earlier announcement of the decision : The Manhattan Mercury, 11/8/02 [READ ARTICLE] AP, 11/11/02 [READ STORY] LA Times, 11/13/02 [READ ARTICLE] Tom Toles cartoon about decision, 11/14/02 [SEE CARTOON]
Related: Suits Filed to Overturn Winter Use Plan - Two separate lawsuits were filed contesting the plan. One lawsuit, filed by The Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Alliance, Sierra Club, and Winter Wildlands Alliance, calls for a return to the Clinton administration plan which banned the use of snowmobiles but allowed winter visitation in "snowcoaches," multi-passenger vehicles with treads. The other lawsuit, filed by the Fund for Animals, Bluewater Network, and the Ecology Center, advocates for a snowmobile ban as well as a moratorium on trail grooming in the Park. The grooming of trails and roads is thought to affect the migration, feeding and predation patterns of bison, lynx, coyotes, bobcats, and other animals. Source: Wildlands CPR, 3/28/03 [WEBSITE]

2/6/03: Government Records Call Snowmobile Use Damaging, Illegal - Records released in response to a Bluewater Network lawsuit reveal Department of Interior internal documents that question the legality of snowmobile use in National Parks. Former Assistant Secretary Donald Barry wrote that most if not all snowmobile operation "is not in conformity with applicable legal requirements." He recommended that the DOI grant a favorable response to a January 1999 Bluewater Network petition to suspend recreational snowmobile use in National Parks. This triggered a widespread review of snowmobile use late in the Clinton administration; these reviews were suspended by the Bush team, except at Yellowstone. In December 2002, Bluewater filed suit once, asking the Park Service to re-open these reviews. Source: Bluewater Press Release, 2/6/03 [READ PRESS RELEASE(pdf)]

6/25/02: NPS Director Declares Intention to Maintain Snowmobile Use - In public comments at Yellowstone National Park, National Park Service Director Fran Mainella indicated that the decision has been made to allow continued snowmobile use, with new generation machines (quieter and cleaner), smaller numbers and guided tours being mandated. This suggests that Alternative 3, the stricter of two alternatives allowing continued use, is the one being developed into the final Plan. According to most reports, public comments leaned 4-1 against continued snowmobile access to Yellowstone; Mainella contended that most of these were form letters and postcards, indicating little conviction on the issue. Individual letters reportedly ran closer to 10-1 against snowmobiles; Mainella contended that many letter-writers were ill-informed. Source: Idaho Falls Post-Register, July 2002 [READ ARTICLE]

4/5/02: Record number of snowmobile citations issued - The winter of 2001/2 saw a record number of rule violations at Yellowstone National Park. Park Service rangers consider the increase to be a combination of increased enforcement and increased violations. Illegal incursions into the park from non-authorized entrances were particularly mentioned as having increased significantly (perhaps in response to increasing regulation at park gates). Source: Billings Gazette, 4/5/02 [READ FULL ARTICLE]

2/4/02: Proposed ban near Yellowstone also stirs controversy - A 4000 acre Forest Service roadless area on Mount Jefferson, just west of Yellowstone on the Montana-Idaho border, is also considering a snowmobile ban. After a District review recommended the ban (public comments ran 2-1 in favor of the ban), Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Supervisor Janette Kaiser delayed implementation of any new rules pending a two-year analysis. Limits on snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Targhee National Forest lead some to consider Mount Jefferson an important site to remain open. The steep upper slopes of the mountain provide a rare degree of challenge for advanced riders, who ride powerful new machines with advanced treads while "highmarking", or trying to make the highest mark on the mountain before getting stuck. It's also a well-used corridor for snowmobilers crossing the continental divide to access popular bowls. Rancher and former snowmobile guide Pat McKenna has led the drive to close the area; he considers it a crucial east-west corridor for wildlife. "I love snowmobiles," says McKenna, "but these hot-rod highmarkers use the place at the expense of everyone else." Source: High Country News, 2/4/02 [READ STORY]

Advocacy Organizations

BlueRibbon Coalition - Nationwide advocacy group supporting the right to motorized recreation on public lands; leaders in litigation to overturn recreation limitations and resist additional wilderness designations. [WEBSITE]
BlueRibbon Coalition Yellowstone Action Alert [SEE ALERT]
International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association Press Release, calling for balance in reporting of the issue [READ PRESS RELEASE]

Bluewater Network - Leaders in the movement to ban jetski and snowmobile use in National Parks and Seashores. [WEBSITE]

Greater Yellowstone Coalition - Has spearheaded efforts to limit snowmobile use in Yellowstone. [WEBSITE]

National Parks Conversation Association - Advocates for stronger environmental protections in national parks. [WEBSITE]
NPCA Yellowstone Action Alert [SEE ALERT]
Online Bear Necessities "game"--bear tries to capsize snowmobiles with snowballs [PLAY GAME]

Natural Trails and Waters Coalition - Detailed web site that supports reductions or elimination of motorized vehicle use on public lands. [WEBSITE] - Advocacy group working to maintain public access to snowmobiling on public lands. [WEBSITE]

Snowmobile Manufacturers Association - [WEBSITE]

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