WEST YELLOWSTONE, MONT. — As the most famous attraction of the world's oldest national park, Old Faithful is, in many ways, the premier symbol of rustic America in the frozen maw of winter.
Since President Ulysses Grant created Yellowstone in 1872, Old Faithful has been synonymous with solitude. But these days, visitors to Yellowstone hear more than the rush of water. Those gathering to see the eruption of the geothermal gusher are routinely unable to hear it over the noise of snowmobiles in a nearby parking lot.
The growth of snowmobiling is such that one major entry to the park, West Yellowstone, Mont., has been called the Snowmobile Capital of the World.
Yet the industry here is increasingly under attack. While some 36 units of the National Park System allow snowmobiling - accounting for about 180,000 riders a year - each is awaiting the outcome of a contentious planning process in Yellowstone that will decide how much, if any, commercial snowmobiling will continue.
As such, Yellowstone, which hosts some 65,000 riders each year, has emerged as the linchpin in a growing debate over the appropriateness of snowmobiles in national parks.
To environmentalists and many local residents, the machines are noisy, smelly abominations that should be banned to protect Yellowstone's serenity. But business leaders say the activity is a key part of the local economy - the bread and butter of winter season.
Snowmobiling has long been prohibited in Glacier and Lassen Volcano National Parks because of perceived threats to natural resources. Recent flare-ups over requests for expanded snowmobiling have occurred in Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota and Denali in Alaska, but Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park remain the highest-stake battlegrounds, largely because of their high national profiles.
"Yellowstone, along with the upper Midwest region, is a snowmobiling icon," John Sacklin, a park planner. Here, riders can motor by sparkling ice-sheathed waterfalls, alongside mangy bison and elk, through the steam of geysers, and across massive, curvaceous snow dunes. "It ranks right up there with the ultimate snowmobiling destinations in the world."
During the past 30 years, West Yellowstone built its winter economy on millions of dollars generated from the activity - with little dissuasion from the Park Service. To impose a ban now, say local businessmen, would be devastating.
"We didn't create the demand, we have responded to it," says Randy Roberson, who rents snowmobiles to park tourists. "People want to experience the thrill of riding a snowmobile into Yellowstone."
So far, Yellowstone officials have not displayed any overt dislike of snowmobiles, but increasing public demand for snowmobile tourism has created an unanticipated controversy.
Indeed, thousands of public comments have poured in from every state. Most criticize Yellowstone for not imposing limits on the number of snowmobiles allowed to enter, even though drivers are strictly confined to groomed trails that pass over the snow-covered highways - highways closed to traffic in winter.
A major flash point is the machines themselves. Snowmobiles run on two-cycle engines (comparable to riding lawn mowers) whose fuel inefficiency produces a high level of pollutants. The sound of their engines also carries for miles. Industry officials, prodded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, now say they are working to design quieter, cleaner machines.
But environmentalists say snowmobiles detract from the winter experience, are hazardous, and have caused damage to wildlife by altering migration patterns.
"Snowmobiling is one of the most environmentally devastating recreational activities permitted by the Park Service," says biologist D.J. Schubert of The Fund for Animals, a conservation group that has joined others groups in calling on the Clinton administration to ban snowmobiles from all national parks.
Mr. Schubert says taking such action will be harder now that snowmobiling has exploded. Twenty years ago, only a few thousand intrepid snowmobilers, mostly local riders, made the trek between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful.
In 1998, more than 120,000 winter tourists entered the park, two-thirds of them on snowmobiles.
Problems with snowmobile exhaust have gotten so bad that park employees say they must have fresh air piped into the entrance station to prevent them from getting sick. Park officials confess Yellowstone very likely is not meeting compliance with a number of environmental laws, including provisions of the Clean Air Act.
As the debate has developed and grown more acrimonious, some here have even begun to cast it as something of a class struggle: the blue-collar, "Joe Six-Pack" snowmobilers versus snobby, exclusionary, cross-country-skiing environmentalists.
"Our opponents are fond of suggesting that those of us pushing for a phaseout of snowmobiles in Yellowstone are elitist, bent on keeping people out," says Jon Catton of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "What is truly elitist is for one group of visitors, riding noisy and polluting machines, to diminish the qualities that other park visitors are coming to enjoy."
For their part, snowmobile supporters say they are well aware of the sentimental value of Yellowstone National Park to Americans-they just don't see the machines as a great evil.
"We love Yellowstone, but at the same time we don't believe that snowmobiling is as harmful as the critics say it is," says Marysue Costello, executive director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce. "Jobs aren't the only thing we care about, but jobs are what allow us to live in this community."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society