Settling the Debate Over Motorized Vehicles in Yellowstone

Posted: Dec 16, 2017

Whether motorized oversnow vehicles (OSVs) such as snowmobiles and snowcoaches should be allowed in Yellowstone National Park, and in what capacity, has been a controversy for decades. Snowmobile supporters want less restrictions on the use of OSVs in the park, whereas other groups want to restrict or even ban the use of OSVs in Yellowstone because of environmental and aesthetic concerns.

In the hopes of settling this debate once and for all, the National Park Service (NPS) recently released a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS) for a Winter Use Plan for Yellowstone National Park. The Draft SEIS is the seventh in 12 years, and contains a broad range of alternatives.

The goal of the Draft SEIS is to manage the use of snowmobiles and snowcoaches in Yellowstone. Snowcoaches are motorized, have rubber treads, and can accommodate a dozen or more people. They allow guests to experience the park in winter from the comfort of a heated cabin, much like the inside of a van.

The first OSVs arrived in Yellowstone National Park in 1963. At the time, the park had only been open for about 75 years and saw very few visitors. The use of motorized OSVs began to increase in popularity by the 1970s, at which point the park began to restrict their use. By the early 2000s, a strict regulation scheme had been put in place by the NPS.

Early OSVs were much noisier and dirtier than the vehicles used today. The NPS has stated that regardless of the alternative selected, both snowmobiles and snowcoaches will be required to become even cleaner and quieter in the future.

The NPS-preferred alternative, also known as the “market approach,” would manage the use of OSVs by regulating the amount of transportation events per day. A transportation event refers to one snowcoach or one group of about half a dozen snowmobiles entering the park. A total of 110 transportation events would be allowed in the park each day. Park operators would decide whether to use their daily allocation of transportation events for snowmobiles or snowcoaches, but no more than 50 daily transportation events could come from snowmobiles. The guiding principle behind this alternative and its name is that the NPS will allow visitors of the park (i.e. the “market”) decide how much OSV traffic would come in and out of the park based on what they purchase (in addition to the influence of park operators).

The proposed plan would also allow a once-daily non-commercially guided group trip, which would be determined by lottery. The details about this aspect of the plan are still being worked out. Overall, this alternative is expected to reduce snowcoach traffic by 23% and increase snowmobile traffic by 10% this coming winter.

There is something to be said for allowing visitors of the park to have a say in how they enjoy it. Exactly what the NPS’s innovative market approach will reveal about visitor preferences is unknown, but is not without an appropriate amount of restraint.

As technological improvements continue to be made to OSVs to make them cleaner and less disruptive, the vehicle group size allowed per transportation event may increase. These changes would allow for an increase in visitation while reducing transportation-generated noise and air impacts.

Regardless of the possibility of cleaner and quieter OSVs, some environmental groups are fighting to ban OSVs from Yellowstone completely. Banning all OSVs from the park is not a reasonable course of action. There is a long tradition of visitors of the park using OSVs. In addition, OSVs—particularly snowcoaches—make it possible for a wider array of visitors to access the park’s resources.

The proposed plan, which allows seven snowmobiles per event, is reasonable. Snowmobile supporters should see the proposed plan as a victory. A little over 200 snowmobiles visited Yellowstone per day last year. The proposed plan limits the number of snowmobiles allowed into the park per day to 318, which is much higher than the average actual use. The market approach has been publicly endorsed by pro-snowmobile groups like the BlueRibbon Coalition.

Advocacy groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, on the other hand, say they are opposed to allowing any snowmobiles in the park because the machines are dirty and disruptive. These groups want to phase out the use of snowmobiles in favor of snowcoaches, which some say are cleaner and quieter than snowmobiles.

It is true that snowcoaches have many advantages over traditional snowmobiles. Snowcoaches have rubber instead of metal treads, allowing easier access in light snow and causing less harm to the landscape. They can also accommodate a dozen or more people, and allow more guests to experience the park more comfortably.

At the same time, I’m not sure I believe all the hype about snowcoaches being far superior to snowmobiles. Although snowmobiles generally tend to contribute more to air pollution than snowcoaches, their impacts on wildlife are comparable, with snowcoaches potentially being the more disruptive of the two. A recent news article reported that while snowmobiles may cause a “visible behavioral response” from wildlife, snowcoaches lead to “stronger” responses, such as “movement or flight." Often retrofitted buses and vans, snowcoaches are all unique, so it is difficult to pinpoint one OSV over the other as being more disruptive, said a Yellowstone official during a public meeting in Jackson Hole.

OSVs allow more people to experience Yellowstone, not just outdoor enthusiasts and athletes. The elderly, the sick, children, and people who just don’t want to the brave the elements, can still experience the park in one of its most spectacular seasons. Too much restriction of OSVs could rob these people of the ability to visit the park at all.

Banning or cutting down on the use of OSVs in Yellowstone could also have devastating effects on local economies. OSVs facilitate year-round instead of solely seasonal use of the park, which generates resources that surrounding communities that feed, house, and entertain park visitors have come to depend upon.

One of the duties of the NPS is to “protect park resources for public enjoyment." The proposed plan seems to do just that—sets reasonable standards that OSVs must meet in order to protect the park, but also protects the many different forms of public enjoyment.
Environmental advocacy groups have argued that snowmobilers should use the vast designated snowmobile trails that border the park, instead of being allowed in. However, this seems to go against the duty of the NPS. The park is not really being enjoyed if only a select few can access it without the aid of OSVs. The NPS should not cater to the public’s every whim under the market approach, and doesn’t propose to do so; it has an equally important duty to protect the park now and in the future.

That is why the proposed plan is a successful compromise. Prolonging this litigious debate will only stand in the way of the NPS putting in place a comprehensive winter use plan, something it has been trying to do for decades. Perhaps the effort in stalling this plan is better spent making sure OSVs live up to the plan’s expectations for noise and air quality.

~ Emi Estelle

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