Yellowstone's Balancing Act

Posted: Dec 15, 2019

Yellowstone National Park recently announced a plan to tackle the controversial issue of winter use within the park, specifically oversnow vehicles such as snowmobiles. The presence of recreational motorized vehicles within Yellowstone has resulted in numerous policy changes and litigation decisions.

Since 2007, when Greater Yellowstone Coalition (a conservation group) brought a lawsuit against the NPS having to do with snow vehicle usage in the park, Yellowstone has had an interim plan in place due to the litigation over previous planning efforts. As a result of that litigation the United States District Court for the District of Columbia vacated the previous Winter Use Plan that was in place at the time. The ruling of the court left no provision allowing snowmobile or snowcoach use because of lack of a current acceptable plan.

In November of 2008 pursuant to suit brought against Yellowstone by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming issued a ruling reinstating a 2004 rule, which allowed a maximum of 720 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day. In 2009, the National Park Service (NPS) issued a new interim Winter Use Plan which allowed a maximum of 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day. NPS sought to quickly develop this plan so that the 2004 rule would not be reinstated by way of court ruling, which allowed over 700 oversnow vehicles per day.

Since this interim rule substantially lowered the number of snowmobiles allowed into the park, it was challenged by the State of Wyoming, and Park County, Wyoming. Despite how restrictive the snowmachine lobby felt the policy was, a Wyoming court found that the NPS plan and rule should remain until its expiration on March 15, 2011.

The NPS is now seeking to develop a new rule which would protect the park and keep the winter use of visitors in mind. In the proposed plan there are seven alternatives which range from allowing no snowmobile or snowcoach use, to permitting up to 720 snowmobiles a day.

The proposed plans appear as though the NPS is attempting to perform a balancing act with the environmental integrity of the park, and the desire of its patrons to be allowed motorized winter use of the park.

In a recent study at Yellowstone, researchers found that the nitrogen oxide emissions from snowmobiles are greater than the carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles. Although Yellowstone requires that the best technology available is used by the snowmobiles, the emissions are effectively more damaging than the emissions from vehicles that drive through the park during the summer.

Of the alternatives that Yellowstone has published in their Environmental Impact Statement, there seems to be only two alternatives that focus on protecting the park, while recreation remains a lower priority.

The first, and ideal, alternative is that no recreational snowmobiles or snowcoaches are allowed in the park the entire winter.

The second, more realistic, alternative that seems to benefit the park on an environmental protection level as well as avoiding a drop in snowmobiling patrons, is the plan for a maximum of 318 snowmobiles a day allowed into the park. Currently the average is 187 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone over the winter. This alternative would prevent the overgrowth of snowmobiles during the winter season, essentially trying to place a cap on the emissions of winter vehicles. As part of the plan, Yellowstone would also put in a nitrogen oxide limit into effect. Currently 318 snowmobiles is the current limit, it is not clear of whether or not this meets the nitrogen oxide limit that the NPS is seeking to implement. The best available technology standard that the NPS has in place seems to help to solve the problem, although this will be a tough regulation to enforce because it could require vehicle by vehicle inspection.

The “preferred alternative” plan that the NPS has proposed is extremely interesting in that it has never been attempted before. This plan would regulate the number of oversnow vehicles by day, varying how many would be allowed in, depending on the specific day. This would help to lower the number of vehicles in the park on any given day. This means that the number of vehicles on one day could be as low as 110 snowmobiles and 30 snowcoaches, and other days there could be 400 or more oversnow vehicles in the park. In the end this could result in no change in the amount of vehicles during the winter, seeing as how the average number of oversnow vehicles in the park this last winter was under 200.

Obviously there are going to be those who are opposed to any oversnow vehicles allowed in the park at any time. The director of conservation program with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition stated that he feels as though the NPS is bowing to public pressure instead of trying to correct an issue causing damage to the park. However, local business have been benefitting from the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone since it was first allowed in 1963. Local businesses are worried that by limiting, or discontinuing the allowance of oversnow vehicles in Yellowstone could have an enormous negative impact on the livelihood of many small local businessmen. Just this past year 22,691 people were brought to Yellowstone to use oversnow vehicles.

During a time where Yellowstone is recognized as being severely damaged from global warming and environmental degradation, park officials should be worried more about preservation and less about recreation. The dying creeks and rivers that cut through a national park on the brink of major ecological disaster should be constant reminders of the cost of our unwise environmental practices. Even further, patrons should understand the dire situation Yellowstone's ecosystem is currently in, and they should step up to preserve the beauty they are so lucky to enjoy.

The NPS could very well close off the park to all oversnow vehicles as part of an eco-crackdown on high emissions and chemical pollution within the park limits. However, the complete cut off of accessibility to snow vehicles could result in even more litigation against the NPS, leaving compromise as the only plausible option.

You can comment on the proposed plans online.

You can also read more news on the proposed winter use plans online.

-Anthony Santos, University of Colorado Law Student

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