By Ruffin Prevost
Yellowstone Gate, Cody,
Cody, Wyo. - Snowmobiles and snow coaches in Yellowstone
National Park will be managed using a "transportation event" concept, Sylvan
Pass will remain open and daily noncommercial guides from each gate will be
allowed to lead groups using snowmobiles under the
preferred alternative outlined in a draft winter use plan posted online by
the National Park Service, but later removed from the Park Service website.
Park planners had intended to release the plan today, and
had loaded documents onto the Park Service website in anticipation of their
release, said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.
Yellowstone Gate downloaded those planning documents and posted them as part of
"But then we had a request from some folks in Washington to answer
some questions that are all about process," Nash said, so the planning
documents were pulled down until those questions can be answered. Nash said he
expects the plan to be "formally released" sometime next week, but that he does
not anticipate any changes to the documents posted with this report today.
The draft plan lists four alternatives, including the
alternative preferred by the Park Service. Under that preferred
would manage over-snow travel use by limiting the total number of
"transportation events," referred to as "sound events" in previous drafts.
According to planning documents, at the highest potential level of use, there
"could be a maximum of 480 snowmobiles in the park" but "the average maximum
use would be 342 snowmobiles per day."
The draft plan also states that:
- A transportation event would initially equal one snow coach
or one group of about seven snowmobiles, and a total of 110 transportation
events would be allowed in the park each day.
- Operators would decide whether to use their daily allocation
of transportation events for snowmobiles or snow coaches, but no more than 50
daily transportation events could come from snowmobiles. Snowmobile groups
could have up to 10 sleds in each transportation event, but must average seven
sleds per event over the course of the entire season.
- Four of the 50 daily snowmobile transportation events would
be reserved for unpaid guides leading groups of up to five sleds from each of
the four gates.
- Over-snow travel in the park under the preferred alternative
would continue to be with guides only. But up to four transportation events per
day (one at each winter gate) of up to 5 snowmobiles each would be allocated
for non-commercially guided access.
- Sylvan Pass, between Cody,
Wyo. and Yellowstone's interior, would
remain open, and would continue to be managed under guidelines developed by the
Sylvan Pass working group.
Best-available technology requirements for snowmobiles would
remain the same as the BAT requirements in the 2011/2012 interim regulation
until the 2017/2018 winter season, at which time additional sound and air emission
requirements would be implemented.
BAT requirements for snow coaches would also be implemented
beginning in the 2017/ 2018 season. As technology advances and vehicles become
cleaner and quieter, the group size of snowmobiles would be allowed to increase
from an average of 7 to an average of 8 per transportation event, and snow
coaches would be allowed to increase from one to two snow coaches per
Efforts to nail down a long-term winter-use plan have been
complicated by public debate, including court challenges over issues like
snowmobile traffic and avalanche management on Sylvan Pass.
Many individuals and advocacy groups, including the Greater
Yellowstone Coalition, are opposed to allowing any snowmobiles in the park,
saying the machines are dirty, noisy and a poor match for the tranquil winter
atmosphere in Yellowstone. Snowmobile
advocates say newer machines are quieter and cleaner, and that they are an
appropriate way to tour Yellowstone.
Gary Fales, the lone commercial guide bringing snowmobiles
through Yellowstone's East Gate over Sylvan
Pass, said last Friday
morning that he was happy with the draft, and praised Yellowstone
Superintendent Dan Wenk as "a real common-sense kind of guy." He said allowing
non-commercial guides would be a good way to help build traffic through Sylvan Pass
and justify what he agreed was a steep cost to keep the pass open for what in
recent years has been a relatively small group of annual users.
Jeff Welsch, spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition,
said in an email Friday morning that the group would spend some time reviewing
the draft plan.
"To the Park Service's credit, they have done a lot of
additional analysis on this issue. We need to spend some time perusing the
document ourselves before we can make any substantive comments," he said. "Of
course, for many years GYC has advocated for an alternative that enables winter
visitors to experience Yellowstone
National Park in a way
that allows the park to be protected as fully as possible. We are analyzing
this latest proposal to see if it does just that."
The plan would allocate fixed limits for transportation
events originating at each entrance. The maximum allowed snowmobile
transportation events (a group of up to 10 snowmobiles, but adhering to a
seasonal average of seven) from each entrance are:
- West - 23
- South - 16
- East - 3
- North - 2
- Old Faithful - 2
Additionally, the four entrances would also each be allowed
one non-commercially guided snowmobile transportation event daily.
For snow coaches, the daily limits are set assuming all 50
available snowmobile events have been allocated for that day, and are:
- West - 26
- South - 10
- East - 2
- North - 10
- Old Faithful - 12
If none of the commercial snowmobile events are used
out of a total 106 events, with 4 events reserved for noncommerically
guided snowmobile use:
- West - 47
- South - 17
- East - 2
- North - 17
- Old Faithful - 23
Under the preferred alternative, four transportation events
each day (one per gate) of up to five snowmobiles each would be reserved
for non-commercially guided access. Each unpaid guide would be allowed to
lead up to 2 groups per season, and permits for those trips would be
allocated via an online lottery system.
was a potential option outlined in some alternatives that was opposed by many
The 1.5 mile stretch of road at an elevation of 8,524 feet
lies between the East Gate and Fishing
Bridge and is subject to
avalanches throughout the winter, as well as spring and summer slides. A 2007
draft winter-use plan proposed closing the pass, but public outcry from Cody
residents and pressure from Wyoming elected officials brought about a working
group and discussions with park officials that later resulted in a reversal of
Various conservation groups have objected to the risk, cost
and environmental effects of using a howitzer cannon to mitigate avalanche
risks along the pass.
According to planning documents made available Friday, Sylvan Pass
would be managed using a combination of avalanche mitigation techniques,
"including forecasting and helicopter and howitzer-dispensed explosives." The
Park Service and federal safety regulators would continue to review the process
to address worker and visitor safety issues.
Pass has long been a
hot-button issue in Cody, said Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody
Country Chamber of Commerce, who briefly reviewed the draft plan Friday.
Balyo said some in Cody "were gearing up for a fight" over
the possibility the plan might call for closing Sylvan Pass, but that if the
draft survives as written, such a conflict is unlikely. Though he is waiting to
more thoroughly study a final draft, Balyo said that "at first, blush we're
Park planners and many gateway business owners are hoping
that whatever final winter-use plan that results from today's draft will stand
up to anticipated court challenges and allow concessioners some measure of
certainty in marketing and operating winter tours into Yellowstone. Conversely,
many opposed to snowmobiles in the park had hoped the new plan would call for
phasing out the machines in favor of rubber-treaded snow coaches, which allow
groups of a dozen people or more to see the park from a heated cabin similar to
a shuttle van.
The numerous judicial battles over past plans have made it
virtually impossible to craft a long-term plan that can survive litigation.
New ideas for winter-use management in the last decade have
been rare, as opponents have dug in their heels on key issues. During that
time, the Park Service has produced numerous new studies, draft plans and
technical analyses-often in response to court rulings, including findings from
different federal courts that aren't always in sync with each other.
Under what the Park Service has called a "market approach,"
operators offering both snow coach and snowmobile tours will ultimately be
letting the public decide the mix of vehicles in the park by their purchasing
Transportation event management would reduce overall noise,
while also creating practical limits for emissions and stresses on wildlife, Yellowstone management assistant Wade Vagias said in a
March interview. It would also give tour operators and visitors more
flexibility to choose vehicles and set group sizes and schedules. He said such
a management model could result in less noise in the park while potentially
allowing more visitors through each day.
The market approach is set up to reward innovation and
technological improvements, particularly in designing and adopting quieter
snowmobiles and snow coaches, Vagias said in March.
But it's also aimed at diffusing the seemingly intractable
debate over the specific numbers of snowmobiles and snow coaches to be allowed
in the park.
At least a half-dozen different sets of winter-use planning
documents dating back more than 10 years have all proposed specific fixed daily
limits on a combination of vehicles, such as 318 snowmobiles and 78 snow
coaches. None has resulted in a lasting management plan, as local governments
and interest groups have inevitably sued to block the plans because they allow
either too many or too few vehicles in the park.
Each successive legal challenge and ruling by the
courts-along with existing regulations, scientific findings and visitor
expectations-has further limited the options available to planners for creating
a workable winter-use plan, especially when any new proposal is almost certain
to draw another round of litigation.
Over the last decade, Park Service planners, scientists and
managers in Yellowstone have produced a
dizzying array of winter use documents, including:
- 12 air quality reports
- 7 personal health and exposure reports
- 12 soundscape reports and modeling studies
- 14 wildlife reports
- 2 snowpack deposition and snowmelt runoff reports
- 6 socioeconomic reports
The Park Service will receive public comments on the draft
plan for 45 days, and will release a final plan in September. The Park Service
intends to have a final supplemental environmental impact statement, including
a Record of Decision and a long-term regulation, in place in time to govern the
start of the 2012-2013 winter season.
Documents released Friday state that the Park Service
intends to hold public meetings next month on the draft plan in these Yellowstone gateway communities:
Wyo. on July 16
- West Yellowstone,
Mont. on July 17
Mont on July 18
- Cody, Wyo. on July 19
Additional details regarding public meeting locations and
times will be posted on the National Park Service website.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.