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Update: Snowmobile Season, SEIS Scoping End At Yellowstone: New Beginnings?

Published online: Apr 02, 2012 News
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By Jack Welch
Special Projects Consultant, BlueRibbon Coalition

On March 15, 2012, oversnow access by snowmobile and snowcoach ended for the 2011-12 winter season. In addition, on March 9, 2012 Scoping for the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to create a new Winter Use Plan also ended. Let me take a moment to thank all those interested in the future of snowmobile access to Yellowstone National Park for commenting.  Your comments can make a difference.

Let me start my by updating you on the SEIS process. In the Park Service Newsletter, (see the attached PDF), one of the most important areas to be revisited in the new SEIS is the opportunity for non-commercially guided access. Yes, the Park Service wants to take a serious look at changing the requirement that all snowmobilers hire a commercial guide to access the Park. The other areas to be revisited in the SEIS process include variable preset use limits, air quality and sound modeling assumptions, proposed BAT for snowcoaches, adaptive management framework, cost of avalanche mitigation on Sylvan Pass and a new concept for managing daily entries called "Sound Events."

Let's look at "Sound Events" from the Park Service Newsletter. The concept is discussed under the Preliminary Range of Draft Alternatives, Nos. 5 and 6. According to the Park Service a "Sound Event" would equal the following: one current non-BAT snowcoach entry or an average of up to 7 BAT-snowmobiles in one group not to exceed 10. Depending on the market, each operator (current permit holder) would be issued a number of sound events and could chose whether to fill the sound events with snowmobile groups or snowcoaches.

An example would be if an operator had five "Sound Events" entries per day, that operator could have five snowcoaches or five groups of 7 snowmobiles totaling 35 machines entering the Park.  This is a very interesting concept and may be a breakthrough in entry management. For more details see Park Service Newsletter.

With scoping finished, the next step in the SEIS process is release of a Draft SEIS which is planned in late April or early May. For the latest information on the SEIS, please check out the BlueRibbon dedicated website www.saveyellowstonepark.com. When the Draft SEIS is released we will have 60 days to comment. Please be prepared to help in the comment process.   

And now for the Report on the 2011-12 Winter Season in Yellowstone. The just finished season was plagued by very unusual snow conditions. There was not enough snow to open the West Entrance to snowmobiles until Dec. 30, 2011. However, the South Entrance received heavy snowfall and in late February a major blizzard stranded more than 100 people at Flagg Ranch who had just snowmobiled to Old Faithful. By all reports, Old Man Winter really favored the South Entrance this season, according to the National Park Service Public Use Statistic Office.

For the period December 15, 2011 through February 29, 2012 snowmobile visitors totaled 6,365 as compared to 6,468 in the same period in the 2010-11 season for only a 1.59 percent decrease. In the same report snowcoach visitation dropped to 2,905 in the 2011-12 season from 2,989 in the 2010-11 season for a 2.81 percent decrease. (Please note the West and Northeast Park Entrances were closed to snowmobiles due to lack of snow most of December, 2011 so no proper year over year comparison for those portals can be made).

What does this mean? It means that even with the current restrictions of the "One Year Rule," only 318 snowmobile entries per day and unlimited snowcoaches, snowmobile visitation to Yellowstone is still very strong. And I personally witnessed one reason the snowmobile entries hold firm: the national and international appeal of Yellowstone in winter by snowmobile as a form of transportation.

Here is my experience. In January, 2012, I took a commercially guided trip into the Park with Jackson Hole Snowmobile Tours. We went from Flagg Ranch at the South Entrance to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its falls. In my group were people from California, North Carolina and Great Britain. Yes, Yellowstone has broad international appeal. My tour group all came to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Falls and, of course, the wildlife along the groomed roads. These folks really enjoyed the snowmobile as transportation to see the special sights of Yellowstone in winter.

In closing, please remember the fact that Yellowstone has remained open to snowmobiles since our combined effort began in 1997 is a major accomplishment over the extreme environmental movement in our lifetime. Enjoy the victory and make your plans to come and enjoy Yellowstone this next winter season 2012-13 on a snowmobile.