Snowmobile plan could cut Yellowstone access

Posted: Friday, November 15, 2002

HELENA, Mont. -- Business leaders in West Yellowstone, Mont., the self-proclaimed ''snowmobile capital of the world,'' fear the Bush administration's plan for managing snowmachines in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks could spell doom for business in their town.

While the plan is expected to cap the number of snowmobiles at a level above the current average daily use, it also will set a strict limit on the number allowed to enter Yellowstone through the West Yellowstone entrance, the most popular entrance for snowmobilers.

''What this plan means, basically, is that our business would be cut right in half,'' Glen Loomis, a snowmobiler and owner of Polaris West in West Yellowstone, said Monday. ''They're trying to spin this as allowing an increase in snowmobile use, but that's not what's going to happen here at all.''

''If this is what they really end up doing, we're going to have some real concerns,'' added Clyde Seely, who runs a number of businesses in West Yellowstone, including a snowmobile rental shop.

The Interior Department released an environmental impact statement Tuesday detailing the plan. It is intended to be a compromise between unlimited access wanted by snowmobile makers and users and the ban that had been proposed by the Clinton administration earlier and supported by environmentalists.

Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis said the plan was an effort to strike a balance between two extremes -- a ban on snowmobiles or unfettered access. The priorities for the plan -- protecting wildlife and improving air quality, among them -- never changed, she said.

Asked about the criticism from business owners at West Yellowstone, Lewis replied simply: ''This has been one of the most collaborative processes the Park Service has ever taken on.''

Few on either side of the issue seemed pleased Monday. Environmental groups criticized the plan for not doing enough to protect the two national parks.

''This is just a boon to the industry,'' said Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society, an environmental group. ''This is not what the American public has been expecting.''

For the past decade, the parks and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway that connects them have had an average of 840 snowmobiles daily during the winter. But during holidays and busy weekends, up to 1,650 have visited daily. It is not uncommon for more than 1,100 snowmobiles to pass through the West Yellowstone entrance alone on some of the busiest days.

According to officials speaking on condition of anonymity, the Bush administration plan would cap the daily number of snowmobiles, beginning in December 2003, at no more than 1,100 a day for both parks and the parkway.

Of that number, only 550 would be allowed to pass through the West Yellowstone entrance on any given day.

''If they limit it to 550 snowmobiles, that takes half our business during the busiest times,'' Loomis said. ''That's going to be a huge impact on the town of West Yellowstone. How would you like it if someone came in and said 'we're taking half your money'?''

Additionally, the regulations would require that 80 percent of the snowmobiles allowed in the two parks beginning next season be led by commercial guides, and would require all rented snowmobiles to have four-cycle engines, which are quieter and burn cleaner than conventional two-cycle motors. Private snowmobile owners could use traditional two-cycle engines until the 2004-05 winter season.

Loomis and Seely said the requirement that all rental machines be four-cycle models does not bother them. In fact, both already have added four-cycle models to their rental fleets.

''I think we have always worked toward making reasonable changes in the park.'' Seely said. ''The question is, are these caps reasonable?''

In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended snowmobiles be banned from the two parks as the ''best available protection'' for air quality, wildlife and the health of people who work and visit there. The Interior Department advanced that idea in the waning days of President Clinton's tenure.

The Bush administration ordered a new review as part of a settlement with snowmobile makers who challenged the proposed ban. The EPA softened is opposition to the recreational vehicles this year, saying federal clean air standards could be met with newer machines that use stricter pollution controls.

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