Snowmobile ban brings quiet - and lot of noise

Judge's limit on the machines in Yellowstone will reduce pollution but also hurt local tourism.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When Jerry Schmier says it's all quiet on the western front of America's first national park, he has a different interpretation from most.

Mr. Schmier worries the silence may presage economic calamity for his town of West Yellowstone, the self-proclaimed "snowmobile capital of the world." This week, on the eve of Yellowstone National Park opening its gates to winter visitors, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., issued a controversial order that has left many in the park gateway community stunned.

Ruling on a lawsuit filed by environmentalists, Judge Emmet Sullivan restored a Clinton-era plan to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone permanently, while overturning a recent Bush administration attempt to retain the machines as a central part of the park's winter experience.

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"The whole thing is a political nightmare, and we're caught in the middle of it," says Schmier, standing next to a fleet of cleaner and quieter snow machines he bought to keep his 30-year-old tourist business afloat, a fleet the federal government encouraged him to buy. "If this ban holds up, it's going to be devastating."

In fact, Schmier says his telephone has been mute the past couple of days. When calls do come in, they're mainly from tourists around the world canceling their winter vacation to Yellowstone on the basis of the erroneous but widespread perception that the park is shut down.

While Schmier is among many who predict economic doom, conservation organizations are hailing the recent judicial decision as central to protecting Yellowstone from air and noise pollution, wildlife harassment, and safety hazards.

The edict cuts in half the number of snowmobiles permitted to enter the park this winter and prohibits them entirely in 2004-2005, forcing visitors to explore the remote areas of Yellowstone in bus-like snow coaches instead.

More than just its immediate impact, environmental activists see the Yellowstone ruling as part of a broader backlash. "This is the front line in a battle to prevent the wholesale repeal of environmental protection being undertaken by the Bush administration," says Sean Smith of the Bluewater Network, which opposes snowmobiles and jet skis in national parks.

Reaction, however, has also been swift from the snowmobile industry, which has already appealed the decision, and from the congressional delegations of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The lawmakers vow to skirt Mr. Sullivan's ruling by introducing special legislation in January.

Snowmobiling has been the backbone of West Yellowstone's winter economy, supporting not only outfitters but restaurants, gift shops, service stations, and hotels. They've also accounted for a large percentage of local sales tax revenues.

"These outfitters make their money on a seasonal basis, and have now had the rug yanked out from beneath them on what I feel is not just an unfortunate decision, but an uninformed one," said Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana, in a statement.

Even Theodore Roosevelt IV, an outspoken conservationist who supports the snowmobile ban, warned environmentalists last summer that they needed to do a better job of helping mom- and-pop businesses in West Yellowstone. In 1964, Schmier was among the first to get government permission to ride snowmobiles from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful across the park's snow-covered highway system.

In the ensuing years, snowmobile traffic grew exponentially and largely unregulated, fueling a winter tourism industry in Yellowstone but also concerns about pollution and the loss of quietude. Park biologists say that groomed snowmobile trails have had a role in changing the nomadic migration of bison, making it easier for them to embark on unnatural treks outside the park.

Some environmentalists would like to see winter tourism in the park stopped altogether.

"I don't think when we started the process of reviewing the impacts of snowmobiles in the 1990s that any of us thought we would be phasing them out of Yellowstone," says Denis Galvin, a former deputy director of the National Park Service. "Basically, it was the facts of the science and the laws we have to uphold which brought us to the conclusion."

The snowmobile industry says that the switch from two-stroke to four-stroke engines means that most of the serious environmental impacts have been overcome. Galvin disputes that contention: "Before I retired, my recommendation to Interior Secretary Gale Norton was that the snowmobile ban was based on sound reasoning."

Snowmobile operators, for their part, are hoping just to be able to hang on. In 2002, Schmier said a poor snow year resulted in revenues dropping $100,000. "We hoped to make up the difference this year," he says. "The irony is we have a lot of snow and conditions are perfect."

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