WEST YELLOWSTONE, MONT. — At a rate of roughly one every 10 seconds, thousands of snowmobilers poured into the country's oldest national park this week for what could be a last hurrah for the controversial over-the-snow vehicles.
Traditionally, the Washington's Birthday weekend is the busiest stretch of snowmobile-riding in Yellowstone, but this year it has taken on special meaning as politicians, environmentalists, and tourism-industry officials battle over the fate of a snowmobile ban scheduled to go into effect here and in Grand Teton National Park within two years.
The Clinton-era ban may well be overturned under the Bush administration. Many say the resolution will be a litmus test for the broader policy debate of preserving a wildland versus a conservation approach that defers to the economic interests of local communities.
"I wouldn't say electing George W. Bush was the answer to all our problems," says Viki Eggers, speaking for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a snowmobile lobby group based in Pocatello, Idaho. "But the mood in West Yellowstone is certainly enhanced by the perception that we're emerging from a very dark tunnel into the light."
Under President Clinton, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit sought to ban snowmobiles not only in Yellowstone but throughout most national parks in the lower 48 states. Dozens of conservation organizations successfully argued the government was violating environmental laws by allowing snowmobilers to use parks.
One of President Bush's first environmental acts, signed just hours after he was sworn in, was to impose a 60-day moratorium on the snowmobile ban.
And last week, US Sen. Craig Thomas (R) of Wyoming drafted legislation aimed specifically at rescinding the ban, despite three years of public meetings and thousands of written pleas from citizens. Of the letters, ban supporters outnumbered opponents 4 to 1.
Still, Ms. Eggers says the ban, if implemented, would cause severe economic hardship on the town of West Yellowstone, Mont., which markets itself as "the snowmobile capital of the world."
"If snowmobiling goes away, West Yellowstone will no longer exist," says Eggers, the former head of the Chamber of Commerce. "The trickle down of snowmobile dollars affects everyone here."
But that doesn't mean all locals oppose the ban. During the holiday weekend, the buzz of snowmobiles made some of Yellowstone's attractions seem like a massive beehive. And reactions to the machines were decidedly mixed.
Some locals say Yellowstone deserves to be treated better. They argue that winter tourism could be shifted away from snowmobiles to futuristic snow coaches, which operate like small, over-the-snow buses and would keep the park in compliance with environmental laws.
In addition, a number of park employees have complained that snowmobile exhaust is making them ill. "When the caretakers of America's first national park are treated like canaries in a coal mine, something is terribly wrong," says Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a park watchdog group based in Bozeman, Mont.
Rangers also complain that snowmobilers driving at dangerous speeds have become a chronic problem, with a stack of nearly 200 tickets written for drivers caught throttling their machines up to 85 miles an hour, almost double the allowable limit.
Principal reasons for the ban are that snowmobiles generate high levels of air and noise pollution, disrupt wildlife behavior at a time when animals are stressed by winter conditions, and impair the winter experience for tourists seeking peace and solitude.
Though outnumbered by automobiles 16 to 1 during the course of a year in Yellowstone, two-cycle snowmobile engines emit up to 68 percent of the park's annual carbon-monoxide emissions and up to 90 percent of Yellowstone's annual hydrocarbon pollution, officials say.
But snowmobile manufacturers and a handful of Yellowstone gateway communities say many of the problems can be resolved with cleaner and quieter machines. "Within the last 12 months alone, the technology has been advancing so fast that the new prototype machines are in their fifth generation," Eggers says.
The irony, she says, is that for years Yellowstone actually encouraged snowmobiling as a park activity - without identifying the pollution standards snowmobile manufacturers had to meet.
But Jon Catton, spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, says even the newer generations of snowmobiles are more polluting and noisier than cars, and complaints against snowmobiling are as much about aesthetics as the physical impact on the land.
For Bush watchers, a telltale sign will be what instructions the president gives his new EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman. He may ask her to waive certain federal air- and noise-pollution standards in deference to economic considerations of the gateway communities. But such a move would be controversial and could damage her credibility on other issues.
Supporters of the ban dismiss arguments that this is about guaranteeing everyone access to public lands. "Snowmobilers tear through river valleys that are occupied by wildlife at 60, 70, 80 miles an hour - that's not about needing the machines to gain 'access' to treasures such as Old Faithful geyser. It's about ignoring the treasures and reveling in a machine," Mr. Catton says.
He cites statistics showing that some 130,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails exist in North America, with 670 miles found in all the national parks (180 miles of that in Yellowstone). "You'd think that with so much mileage, the industry would be satisfied," Catton says. "But it wants to claim Yellowstone, too."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society