Yellowstone winter plan opens options
By Mark Wilcox
March 4, 2013 --
With a new permanent winter plan on the verge of being approved this spring, Yellowstone's winter landscape may open to private parties of snowmobilers again after years of debate and temporary rules banishing them.
All of the gateway communities are breathing a sigh of relief that winter access may soon be permanently resolved. But this comes as good news to some who have been affected by the rules requiring any snowmobile party to enter the park as part of a certified guided tour. And Cody may be the nexus of change when the results get implemented.
Cody's key to winter economy
Over the past 20 years, snowmobilers entering Yellowstone National Park from the east entrance via Cody have dwindled to almost nothing as rules have gotten stricter. In January 1993, 1,437 people entered Yellowstone through the east gate. All of them were snowmobilers. Fast-forward 20 years, and in January 2013, only 201 people entered through the gate, and only 20 of those were snowmobilers. The rest of visitors were logged as "skiers/bicyclists."
In other words, almost 72 times more people snowmobiled into Yellowstone through the east gate in January 1993 than in January 2013. The dramatic change makes a victim of Cody, which is the gateway community to the east side of the park.
"Historically, y'know, Cody had a lot more snowmobile activity coming through the east gate before restrictions were put in place," said Executive Director Scott Balyo of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. "That's a piece of the winter economy that went away."
And Balyo argues that it took with it the Sleeping Giant Ski Area between Yellowstone and Cody because the ski area was so tied to the Yellowstone snowmobiling experience. The resort 50 miles west of Cody reopened in 2009 after closing in 2004 and has struggled to get footing, though skier days have been on the rise annually. Meanwhile, the resort has passed through a series of management changes and is currently trying to bolster summer activities - including a proposed zip line - something not as necessary when Yellowstone was easier to access in the winter months.
At this point, the long-awaited permanent winter use plan looks like it will allow one unguided group of five snowmobilers to enter from each entrance every day as long as their sleds comply with BAT (best available technology) noise and emissions standards. That could allow about 150 snowmobilers to enter through the east gate monthly in the winter months.
But it's not a sure thing. The final winter plan that has been delayed year after year will soon be up for its last public comment, something that has historically drawn tens of thousands of remarks.
"A proposed rule to implement the preferred alternative will be released soon for a 60-day public review and comment period," a park release states. Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash confirmed the sequence of events, saying the record of decision will likely be made sometime this spring after the public-comment window.
The final winter use plan relies on a different paradigm for visits. The park will allow up to 110 "transportation events" each day. Each "event" is initially defined as being either one snowcoach or on average a group of seven snowmobiles. No more than 50 transportation events each day would be allocated for snowmobile groups - or an average total of 350 snowmobiles.
During the most recent temporary rules, up to 318 pollution-controlled, professionally guided snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches were allowed into the park daily. Nash said that, in recent years the numbers haven't even been met because operators don't have enough vehicles in service.
The tone of feedback from both sides of the issue so far has largely been one of acceptance, with one conservation group saying the issue needs to be "put to bed."
"The park's proposed plan and the superintendent's commitments to its core elements are big steps in assuring Yellowstone's conservation and the enjoyment of visitors," said Mark Pearson, Conservation Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in a release. The group is one of five in a coalition that has sought to make Yellowstone winter access as environmentally sound as possible.
"Yellowstone had lost control over snowmobile use by the 1990s and it has taken over a decade for our first national park to restore the healthier winter conditions now benefiting visitors and wildlife," Pearson said. "Many visitors now come to Yellowstone in winter because of opportunities to experience and learn about its wonders without intrusive exhaust and commotion."
Another conservationist praised what he sees as progress in the plan while saying the National Park Service can expect some suggestions for improvement in the coming weeks.
"This proposal has come a long way," said Chuck Clusen, director of national parks and Alaska projects for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Sylvan Pass controversy
But the coalition of conservationists isn't without criticism of the plan. One of the measures they oppose is keeping Sylvan Pass open. The pass is the only access for snowmobilers from Cody, meaning an entire gate would be completely inaccessible without regular avalanche prevention using a howitzer cannon and helicopters.
"Yellowstone proposes to continue avalanche control on Sylvan Pass above the east entrance for the benefit of a scant few winter visitors - just 110 visitors entered by the east entrance in 2011-12," the coalition wrote in a release. "Deploying high explosives so that one or two visitors a day can snowmobile through an avalanche-prone pass unnecessarily exposes national park staff to workplace dangers and visitors to hazards from unexploded shells."
The group went on to call the use of artillery shelling "inappropriate in the world's first national park in the heart of habitat for wolverine and lynx." Additionally, the coalition criticized the program's cost, which it claims costs more than $1,000 per east entrance visitor, or about $125,000.
But Balyo said the program will be essential for Cody's winter economy.
"Our argument has been that if given the ability and flexibility to have more go through we think that the cost per user will go down," he said, indicating that five private snowmobiles per day is better than zero. "If you end up closing it we don't get any business through there."
On the whole, he said, Cody's business community is pleased with the plan.
"Maintaining Sylvan Pass has been a priority for us," Balyo said. "If restrictions were lessened we believe some of that [snowmobiling] activity would come back."
Balyo said he hopes the plan will expand to allow more unguided snowmobiles in the future, and thinks it may be a possibility if the park can measure pent-up demand as usage swells.
"We'd be in a much better position to ask if those permits were being utilized," he said.
Sen. John Barrasso and Gov. Matt Mead have also voiced support of the plan.
"By keeping Sylvan Pass open, providing noncommercial access and allowing flexibility for snowmobile groups, Wyoming residents and communities will be able to enjoy winter recreation and good jobs," Barasso said in a statement. "Superintendent (Dan) Wenk has developed a plan that appears to address both the economic and environmental needs of the park."
Wyoming Business Report Staff Writer Mark Wilcox went into Yellowstone on a snowcoach for the first time this winter, and now knows how important and magical winter access to the park is.