A compromise of sorts that would allow hundreds of snowmobiles into Yellowstone National Park each winter certainly should not be considered the last word on cold-weather tourism from officials of the park or the National Park Service.
The debate over whether to allow any of the noisy, polluting machines into the nation's oldest park should be on-going, with continuing research into their effects on wildlife, water, air and the natural ecosystem the park should protect.
An interim rule has allowed 318 snowmobiles and 78 large snowcoaches into the park each day. Park officials are proposing to allow more snowmobiles and coaches, but require most of them to be guided groups. The number of allowed vehicles would be based on "transportation events." Each snowcoach and each group with an average of seven snowmobiles and not exceeding 10 would equal one event, with up to 110 events permitted each day.
Under those rules the maximum number of snowmobiles per day would be 480. That includes up to four groups of five noncommercial sleds. Demand is highest around Christmas and the Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Day holidays.
The park's plan also would tighten standards for noise and emissions over several years. The changes would begin for the 2014-15 winter season. By 2017-18, only newer models limited to 68 decibels would be allowed in the park. The current commercial limit is about 75 decibels. Snowcoaches would also be covered by the same noise restrictions. Both types of vehicles would be required to limit emissions.
The debate over wintertime vehicle use in Yellowstone has been raging for decades. Snowmobiles were first allowed into the park in 1963 and grew in popularity until about 75,000 up to 720 per day were churning the snow and chugging noise and pollution into the air. In 2001 all snowmobiles were banned, but snowmobile manufacturers and users sued, and the ban was overturned in 2003. Since then, park officials, business owners and environmentalists have waged a tug-of-war over the issue.
The park and federal agencies should thoroughly consider public comments on the proposal and should continue to monitor the impacts of vehicle use, under current rules or the new park proposal if it is adopted.
Snowmobile rentals and guided tours keep the town of West Yellowstone alive in winter. However, there are hundreds of miles of trails open to snowmobiles just outside Yellowstone. It's been difficult to determine how much stress the vehicles cause wildlife, but the spread of vehicle toxins in the park's pristine snow, water and air is indisputable.