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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yellowstone Park: Snowmobile Capitol of the World?

Air Date: Week of

Over the tranquil blanket of snow in Yellowstone Park, a noisy new trend has emerged. Tens of thousands of snowmobilers comes to gape at the scenery. But cross-country skiers and other more traditional nature observers are disturbed by the noise, fumes and disruption they say these tourists bring. Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSU reports.


CURWOOD: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or rather for this next story I should say, beauty is in the ear of the listener. Consider Yellowstone National Park. For years it has been enjoyed in the winter by cross-country skiers and snowshoers as a quite sanctuary. A place to escape the noisy civilized world and retreat into a broad wilderness that hisses quietly with geysers and the swirl of snow. But today, the snow-covered trails of Yellowstone echo with a roar of visitors moving at much higher speeds, touching off a clash of values in one of the country's most treasured landscapes. Jill Hoyt of member station KBSU has our story.

HOYT: A blue haze hangs over West Yellowstone, Montana, a small tourist town bordered by vast, high basins and the rounded mountains of Yellowstone National Park. The haze feels eerie, and is especially thick every afternoon around 5, when snowmobile enthusiasts wearing black helmets and thick jumpsuits spew back to town on their rented snow machines. It's the machine exhaust that causes this haze. But the snowmobilers don't notice as they marvel to each other about the park's wind-shaped ice sculptures and huge geysers.

(Snowmobile motors revving up)

SNOWMOBILER: Love it! First time here, but boy it's unbelievable, the scenery. Unbelievable, it's great, especially the animals, the ale [word?]. Love it!

HOYT: Snowmobilers call Yellowstone the Snowmobile Capital of the World. Last winter, more than 74,000 snow machines entered the park, more than any other year. Even more than park officials predicted would come by the year 2,000. Snowmobilers like John Fowler come here because they can zoom along grooved trails within touching distance of vast herds of wild animals.

FOWLER: The elk and the buffalo lay right alongside the trail. You can stop a few feet back and take pictures and it's beautiful.

HOYT: But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for people who don't ride snowmobiles can be a nuisance. Slim, athletic cross-country skier Mike Yokum says he can't escape the loud machines, no matter how far he goes in the park.

YOKUM: I spent last winter at Old Faithful, and I'm a healthy skier, I can ski 20 miles a day. And I could not find a place that I could ski to and back in one day that was immune from snowmobile noise.

(Two men speak: "Good morning." "Morning." "Jack, how's it going?" "Good, how are you?" "Jack will claim nobody will listen." "Yeah, that's for damn sure." Laughter.)

HOYT: Even people who travel into the park on other motorized vehicles complain. John Gosbadereg, a driver for Alpen Guides Company, a West Yellowstone-based companies that carries tourists on ski-mounted minivans, says his clients often express dismay and disgust at the snowmobilers.

GOSBADEREG: A lot of times it's just the snowmobiling etiquette. You know, we pull up to a waterfall, but you'll get a group of 20 sleds pull up to this waterfall and none of them shut their snowmobiles off. You've got 20 2-stroke engines idling, it sounds like you're in a logging camp.

(Engines revving)

HOYT: Each winter morning, hundreds of snowmobiles line up at the West Yellowstone park entrance and pay a fee to George Kittrell, an amiable seasonal employee who says he often gets headaches from all the exhaust. Even though fresh air is pumped into his cubicle.

KITTRELL: You look at 'em, listen to 'em and smell 'em. But this is what they love; they come from all over to do this. This guy's from Minnesota, you can tell from the sticker.

HOYT: Park officials worry about the health of Kittrell and other gatekeepers. That's one reason why the park started monitoring the west entran ce and several other sites along the park's 166-mile traffic corridor for carbon monoxide and particulants from snowmobiles. West District Ranger Bob Seibert says the 2-cycle snowmobile engine can be 100 times more polluting than just one car. So, in a single day...

SEIBERT: You could have certain types of emissions equivalent to a million automobiles coming through the west entrance on a single day. Whereas all of Yellowstone National Park gets a million automobiles in an entire summer.

HOYT: Yellowstone Park is monitoring its air for 2 years to decide if there is a pollution problem. The results will be part of a new winter use plan that will address other effects of increased snowmobiling, and could ultimately impose restrictions. But Bob Icke of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental activist group, wants the part to limit snowmobile use now.

ICKE: There are examples of other national parks where use levels are set: the Grand Canyon, only so many people are allowed to float that river. And so in Yellowstone there's nothing wrong with the idea of setting some limits to protect the resource.

HOYT: But just mention the word limits to Vicky Egger, Chamber of Commerce Director in the town of West Yellowstone.

EGGER: Not only do I think it would be a horrible miscarriage of the Park Service's mandate, which is to make that park available for people, I think it would be cataclysmic on our economy in West Yellowstone.

HOYT: Others suggest that West Yellowstone, which first got paved sidewalks just 7 years ago, would remain economically healthy with existing snowmobile use.

(Snowmobile engines revving)

HOYT: The Chamber of Commerce, the Park Service, and environmentalists all agree the snowmobile industry needs to adapt and build a Yellowstone-friendly 4-cycle snow machine that would be quieter and less polluting, even though many snowmobilers say the noise is part of the fun.

(Snowmobile engines revving)

SNOWMOBILER: You want to play, you got to take what goes with it. We're going to lobby or regulate ourselves right out of living, we keep it up. Don't you think?

(Snowmobile engines revving)

HOYT: The park expects about 300,000 winter visitors will maneuver through Yellowstone's narrow, crowded roads each year by the turn of the century. Most will be snowmobilers like Mary Gruber.

GRUBER: It's just a wonderful place to be. It's God's country.

HOYT: Others wonder if Yellowstone can remain God's country with an increasing and perhaps unlimited number of snowmobiles whizzing through.

(Snowmobile engines revving)

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jill Hoyt in Yellowstone National park.



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