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Yellowstone National Park proposes allowing several hundred, mostly guided snowmobiles and snowcoaches into the park each day in coming winters.
It's an increase over recent years but still a big reduction from the wide-open 1990s, and both environmentalists and tourist boosters have mixed feelings.
Thousands of snowmobiles mostly from West Yellowstone, Mont. sped through the park some days in the past, fouling air and zooming around wildlife until President Bill Clinton's administration banned snowmobiles there. President George W. Bush's administration reversed that ban, and park officials ever since have been trying to find the right balance.
In recent years an interim rule allowed 318 snowmobiles and 78 larger-capacity snowcoaches each day. Now the park has announced its desire to admit mostly guided snowmobiles based on "transportation events" rather than individual numbers. Groups averaging seven snowmobiles and not exceeding 10 would equal one event, as would each snowcoach, with up to 110 events a day.
Within that mix, the maximum number of daily snowmobiles generally expected with peak demand around the Christmas, Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Day holidays would be 480. That includes up to four groups of five noncommercial sleds.
"It provides flexibility," park Superintendent Dan Wenk said.
If approved later this year, the plan also would ratchet up noise and emissions standards for the vehicles over several years.
"We believe the preferred alternative makes the park quieter, cleaner, provides less disturbance to wildlife," Wenk said, "and it allows a growth in visitation over what's currently allowable."
The changes would not occur until the 2014-15 winter. But by the 2017-18 winter, snowmobilers would have to use newer models limited to 68 decibels instead of the current commercial fleet that Wenk said is closer to 75. Snowcoaches also must meet new noise restrictions by then, and both must burn cleaner necessitating an update to commercial fleets serving the area.
West Yellowstone businesses rely on access, and it's been pared over the years, West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marysue Costello said. Still, they're generally happy with this new plan because it provides an increase from recent years while looking more at the overall effect than visitor numbers.
"There seems to be some optimism because [the plan] is changing the language and changing, perhaps, perspectives," Costello said. "Obviously it is critical to our winter economy that we become a more desired destination because we can actually get people into Yellowstone Park."
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition prefers a return to the ban that allowed only snowcoach visitation. But spokesman Jeff Welsch said the group recognizes "great progress" since the early 1990s, when workers at the park entries wore pollution filter masks. "It's a really dramatic shift."
Still, the coalition doubts the seven snowmobiles really equal one snowcoach in terms of noise or wildlife disturbance, Welsch said. And more machines could mean more pollution even with technological advances.
Have your say
I The National Park Service is accepting public comments about Yellowstone's winter plan until Aug. 20, online at parkplanning.nps.gov/yell or by mail at: Winter Use Planning, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.