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by Chris Keil

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park is a controversial activity with a long history. It is a modern example of a “Tragedy of the Commons”. Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park is part of a larger question: what are appropriate means of visitation in our National Parks? There are few clear answers.

Conservationists have criticized snowmobiling in National Parks from the perspective of noise, air, and water pollution effects on wildlife and other park users. The counter argument is that snowmobiling provides access to public lands, brings significant local economic benefits, and the negative ecological impacts are overblown. The National Park Service (NPS) currently has the difficult task of balancing its core agency goals of providing enjoyment to the public without impairing natural conditions. As with many land-use issues, the decision to permit or forbid a specific activity can be contentious, but in the case of the world’s first National Park, the debate is highly visible and more emotionally charged.

The history of snowmobile travel in Yellowstone dates back to the mid-20th century. Early versions of snowmobiles as we know them were first permitted into the Park in 1963, providing access to popular wildlife, scenic, and geothermal attractions. Beginning with Superintendent, Jack Anderson, during the 1970s, several Yellowstone land managers were vocal advocates of snowmobiling in the park. Over time, the popularity of the snowmobiling grew from 2,173 people in the winter of 1966-67 to 82,298 visitors during the winter of 2000-01. This significant increase brought concerns about the environmental impact to the forefront. (Yellowstone National Park and Snowmobiles Case Study, 2001). As a result, a period of litigation supported by various interest groups began and still continues today. A lawsuit filed in 1997 by an animal rights organization resulted in a snowmobile phase-out instituted in the final days of the Clinton Administration. A subsequent lawsuit filed by snowmobile manufacturers prompted a new Environmental Impact Statement, which overturned the ban in 2003. Unfortunately, the recent debate is politicized, driven by preconceived agendas and framed in a Clinton versus Bush land ethic battle. It is noteworthy that Dick Cheney, regarded as a champion of a modern manifest destiny in the American West, lives close to Yellowstone.

During the last thirty years, scientific studies and data collection and analysis activities have proliferated. Sophisticated studies have measured noise levels, the effect of temperature inversions on air emissions, vehicle fluid polluted snowmelt, wildlife responses to snow machines, and economic impacts to nearby communities. It seems that after decades of a politicized debate, science is finally guiding policy.

In 2006, NPS developed Best Adaptive Technology (BAT) standards to ensure use of the safest and cleanest snowmobiles. Visitors must be accompanied by a guide and only 720 visitors can enter the park daily, among other restrictions. The draft Supplemental Winter Use Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), released in June 2012, considers four options, ranging from banning snowmobiles to expanding their permitted use. Based on public comment and a review of scientific literature by NPS, Option 4 was selected as the preferred option.  If passed, Option 4 will provide a “management framework that has the potential to make the park cleaner, quieter, and allow for more people to visit the park.” This means that slightly more transportation events will be permitted but cleaner BAT machines and guides will be required.

I recently had an opportunity to take a snowmobile trip in Yellowstone National Park. Although personally conflicted, I believed the trip would give me a better understanding of the park and this debate. The experience was interesting. I saw amazing geothermal features and an expansive landscapes blanketed in snow, without the throngs of visitors that characterize a summertime visit to Yellowstone. While snowmobiles enabled me to cover more than 100 miles in a short winter day, an otherwise impossible task, I found the actual snowmobiling to be a distraction. Even with a technologically advanced four stroke snowmobile beneath me, the ride was bumpy and noisy. Furthermore, NPS has developed stringent conduct standards confining riders to a tight single-file formation throughout the entire ride.  Riding this powerful and versatile machine actually became boring. Ultimately, the experience felt restrictive and my sense of place was distorted. At times, I wanted to just let the snowmobile rip through a snowfield, and at other times I wanted to enjoy the landscape in peace and quiet. I could have neither.

Besides providing an opportunity to experience a beautiful landscape, the trip did heighten my awareness of the many ecological issues that Yellowstone is facing. Although Yellowstone is more than two million acres in size, the surrounding landscape does not provide sufficient habitat for some of its most charismatic residents. Every local resident seems to have a strong opinion about the value of bison, elk, wolf, moose, and lake trout and what the appropriate population sizes of these species should be. Similarly to snowmobiling, contentious debates persist among ranchers, conservationists, hunters, fishermen, and other groups. The bottom line is that despite its rugged and enduring appearance, Yellowstone is a vulnerable ecosystem that is actively shaped and managed by humans.

While snowmobiling has received a lot of attention, people must consider this activity in the context of overall park visitation. After all, more than three million people visit Yellowstone annually, only four percent of these visits are during the winter. This is not to say that the traffic jams of tour buses and RVs in the summer should excuse this form of winter recreation, but it is important to consider the whole picture from the perspectives of cultural resource, ecological integrity, and human use. National Parks belong to the people, but what kind of access does this imply?



Exploring the Yellowstone Geoecosystem. Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park: An American right, or wrong?

Yellowstone in Winter: Current Management and Planning. National Park Service.

Yellowstone in Winter: Supporting Science & Technical Documents.

Yellowstone National Park and Snowmobiles Case Study. 2001. Egret Communications/ARA Consulting.

Yochim, Michael. 1999. The Development of Snowmobile Policy in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Science.