Living & Working in Great Places
Yellowstone winter use scoping comments focus on increasing sled numbers
RUFFIN PREVOST Gazette Wyoming Bureau | Posted: Tuesday, March 16, 2010 6:06 pm
CODY — As the National Park Service begins a fourth attempt in recent years to craft a winter use plan, Park County commissioners again are focusing on snowmobiles as a central issue in their scoping comments.
Commissioners on Tuesday released their draft comments, saying that snowmobile travel is a traditional mode of transportation used in the park for nearly half a century, and that it should not require further study or justification.
A public scoping meeting is scheduled for Monday in Cody to discuss the park’s winter use plan, which has been the subject of legal challenges seeking variously to eliminate, limit or expand snowmobile use.
Commissioners are seeking to raise the daily limit of snowmobiles allowed through the East Gate from 20 to 30, and are asking for a pilot project to allow qualified individuals to enter the park without a commercial guide.
Commissioner Jill Shockley Siggins said the Park Service must be made more aware of the socioeconomic issues related to reduced snowmobile traffic, particularly around the East Gate, about 50 miles west of Cody.
She said that rules requiring professional guides and uncertainty over the status of Sylvan Pass have pushed daily visitor numbers from more than 50 in past years to single digits in recent years, costing jobs and setting back winter tourism.
Deputy County Attorney Jim Davis said the county is pursuing a legal argument that snowmobiles are an established form of travel, like automobiles during the summer, and should not be subject to a higher standard of environmental review or legal justification.
Court rulings have required the Park Service to “state why the impacts of snowmobiles are acceptable and necessary before that use can happen,” despite their use for decades, he said.
“That is a fundamental issue the Park Service should examine,” he said.
Snowmobiler Loren Grosskopf urged commissioners at their Tuesday meeting to push for increased access by unguided sledders.
“When they originally started this, they were going to give opportunities for a normal person to become his own guide. But they abandoned that and never allowed that to happen,” Grosskopf said.
“Someone needs to stand up for the average snowmobiler. They can’t fight anymore. A lot of people would love to go snowmobiling through the east entrance again, and winter use around here could blossom again like it used to,” he said.
In their draft comments, commissioners state that individuals trained in a manner similar to commercial guides “could represent a percentage of daily entries at a particular gate while maintaining enough daily numbers to secure the viability of commercial guide operations.”
They also state that the Park Service should rely less on a snowmobile’s date of manufacture to determine if it meets pollution and noise standards. And they say that total daily sled numbers in the park should be increased from 318.
“It’s a drastic change from the way it was on some weekends when there were 4,000 snow machines in the park. Then we settled on a daily average of 960. And through court actions, we’ve gone to where we’re at today, much to my dismay,” said Commissioner Tim French.
Environmental advocates, park planners and others say that limiting the number of sleds and requiring cleaner, quieter models has made winter travel safer, more enjoyable and less stressful for wildlife.
The Park Service regularly reviews its policies to ensure that resources are properly managed, and snowmobiles should not be exempt from that review, they say.
Since 1999, annual visitation numbers in Yellowstone for those using snowmobiles and snow coaches have dropped by approximately 60 percent.
Based on the outcome of the last three winter use plans, many observers expect this latest effort to be challenged, if not settled, in the courts.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at email@example.com or 307-527-7250.
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