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Tue October 22, 2013
Around the Nation

15 Years Of Wrangling Over Yellowstone Snowmobiles Ends

Originally published on Tue October 22, 2013 9:08 pm

The U.S. government Tuesday announced new rules for snowmobiles in Yellowstone that should make the country's oldest national park cleaner and quieter.

The rules were 15 years in the making because of intense wrangling between snowmobile operators and environmentalists. But both groups support the plan and give credit to snowmobile makers for designing cleaner machines.

Under the new plan, fewer than 51 groups of snowmobiles — each with up to 10 vehicles — will be allowed into the park per day, beginning in December 2014. The rule also sets new limits on snow coaches, larger vehicles that bring tourists into Yellowstone.

And as of December 2015, snowmobiles will have to pass stringent tests for noise and air pollution before they'll be admitted inside the park. Experts say few existing snowmobiles can pass these tests.

"This is the most reasonable, the most balanced plan that has ever been presented," says Clyde Seely, a snowmobile operator in West Yellowstone.

Tim Stevens, northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, says he believes the plan will allow visitors to see the wonders of Yellowstone without being harassed by noise and pollution.

"Absolutely, under this plan Yellowstone will be a cleaner and quieter place," Stevens says, "and a place [where] park visitors can find the solitude that is unique to Yellowstone."

Four decades ago, snowmobiles helped open up the winter wonderland of Yellowstone to tourists. Visitors were dazzled by views of geysers spouting from the white wilderness, trumpeter swans gliding over rivers steaming with geothermal waters, and bison digging through snow to find grass.

"It was unbelievable to take those people in and see their mouths drop as they came across some of the phenomena that are there in the winter," says Seely, who guided some of the early tours. "It is a beautiful experience."

Snowmobiles were never allowed off-road in the park, but by the 1990s there were so many exhaust-pumping, whining machines darting about that even operators conceded there was a problem. As many as 80,000 snowmobiles zoomed through Yellowstone each season.

Visitors who came to listen to the gurgling of Old Faithful and other geysers instead were irritated by the loud buzz of the two-stroke engines.

Environmentalists raised concerns about the noise and the air pollution.

"There was a blue haze of exhaust at the entrance stations, while big lines of snowmobiles waited to get into the park," recalls Stevens. It eventually got so bad, he says, that "park rangers were having to wear respirators."

Stevens knew a resolution would not be easy. Though noisy and dirty, snowmobiles were gaining in popularity. Plus, hotels and other businesses near the park's four entrance gates depended on snowmobile tours to attract customers in the winter months.

He recalls telling a joke to a group of environmentalists that his then-newborn son would very likely get his driver's license before the government could come up with a resolution that would stick.

"And now he's a freshman in college," Stevens says.

Through the years, the National Park Service came up with seven different plans for snowmobiles in Yellowstone. Snowmobile enthusiasts and environmentalists challenged one after another in court.

Seely says his bleakest moment in this long struggle was about 10 years ago: The night before the winter season was supposed to start, a federal judge decided not to allow snowmobiles into the park. "Talk about a bomb," he recalls.

Environmentalists had their low moments too, such as when the Bush administration authorized 950 snowmobiles per day in Yellowstone.

This long saga makes it all the more remarkable that nearly everyone seems content with the latest plan from the National Park Service.

Seely, for example, says he'll have to buy new snowmobiles to ensure that his Yellowstone tours meet the new requirements. But even that, he says, is OK with him. The rule provides incentives for snowmobile makers to develop cleaner vehicles. If they do, the park service may increase the number of snowmobiles allowed into Yellowstone.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The federal government today announced new rules for snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. The plan has been 15 years in the making. And as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, unlike previous versions, this one is likely to stick.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Four decades ago, snowmobiles opened up the winter wonderland of Yellowstone to tourists. Clyde Seely owns a hotel and runs a snowmobile business in West Yellowstone. He remembers those early days.

CLYDE SEELY: It was unbelievable to take those people in and see their mouths drop as they came across some of the phenomenon that they're in there in the wintertime. It is a beautiful experience.

SHOGREN: Geysers spouting from the white wilderness, trumpeter swans gliding over rivers steaming with geothermal waters. The experience was so great that it became very popular. Snowmobiles were never allowed off-road. But by the 1990s, Seely remembers there were as many as 80,000 snowmobiles zooming through Yellowstone each season.

SEELY: And that became too many.

SHOGREN: Environmentalist Tim Stevens recalls how desperate the situation seemed in the nation's oldest park.

TIM STEVENS: There was, you know, a blue haze of exhaust at the entrance stations while big lines of snowmobiles waited to get into the park. It was even so bad that park rangers were having to wear respirators.

SHOGREN: Stevens remembers telling other environmentalists that a resolution would not be easy. Snowmobiles were so noisy and dirty and yet they were gaining in popularity. Besides, hotels and other businesses near the park's four gates depended on snowmobile tours to attract customers during the winter months.

STEVENS: I had remarked that my newborn son at the time was likely to get his driver's license before we actually saw a resolution of this issue. And now he's a freshman in college. So...

(LAUGHTER)

SHOGREN: Through the years, the National Park Service came up with seven different plans for snowmobiles in Yellowstone. Snowmobile enthusiasts and environmentalists challenged one after another in court. Hotel owner Clyde Seely remembers his bleakest moment in this long struggle was about 10 years ago, when he heard what a federal judge had declared on the night before the winter season was supposed to start.

SEELY: That snowmobiles were not going to be allowed. Talk about a bomb.

SHOGREN: Environmentalists had their low moments, too, like when the Bush administration authorized 950 snowmobiles per day in Yellowstone. This long saga makes it all the more remarkable that nearly everyone seems content with the latest plan. Starting in December 2015, only the cleanest and quietest snowmobiles will be permitted. As many as 50 groups of snowmobiles, each with up to 10 machines, will be allowed in the park per day. Seely says he'll have to buy new machines for his tours into the park. But even that's OK with him.

SEELY: This is the most reasonable, the most balanced plan that has ever been presented.

SHOGREN: Tim Stevens is now the Northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

STEVENS: Absolutely under this plan, Yellowstone will be a cleaner and quieter place and a place that park visitors can find the solitude that is unique to Yellowstone in the wintertime that people are really looking for.

SHOGREN: Both sides give credit to snowmobile makers for designing cleaner, quieter vehicles. Without those, who knows how long the pitched battle over snowmobiles in Yellowstone would have continued. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.