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Fifteen Years Of Wrangling Over Yellowstone Snowmobiles Ends

Audio

Aired 10/22/13

The federal government today announced new rules for snowmobiles in Yellowstone that will make the country's oldest national park cleaner and quieter.

The rules were 15 years in the making because of intense wrangling between snowmobile operators and environmentalists. But both groups support the plan and give credit to snowmobile makers for designing machines that can limit the pollution and the noise in the country's oldest national park.

Under the new plan, snowmobiles must be in groups of not more than 10 vehicles. And no more than 50 of these groups can move around the park in any one day. Starting in December 2015, snowmobiles will have to pass stringent tests for noise and air pollution before they're allowed into the park. Experts say few existing s nowmobiles can pass these tests.

"This is the most reasonable the most balanced plan that has ever been presented," says Clyde Seely, a snowmobile operator in West Yellowstone.

Environmentalist Tim Stevens believes the plan will allow visitors to see the wonders of Yellowstone without being harassed by noise and pollution.

"Absolutely, under this plan Yellowstone will be a cleaner and quieter place and a place that park visitors can find the solitude that is unique to Yellowstone," says Stevens, northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Four decades ago, snowmobiles opened up the winter wonderland of Yellowstone to tourists, offering them views of geysers spouting from the white wilderness, trumpeter swans gliding over rivers steaming with geothermal waters, and bison digging through snow to find grass.

"It was unbelievable to take those people in and see their mouths drop as they came across some of the phenomenon that are there in the winter," says Clyde Seely, who guided some of the early tours. "It is a beautiful experience."

Snow mobiles were never allowed off road, but by the 1990s, there were so many of the exhaust pumping whining machines in the park that even operators conceded there was a problem. As many as 80,000 snow mobiles zoomed through Yellowstone each season.

Visitors who came to listen to the gurgling of Old Faithful and other geysers instead were irritated by the loud buzz of the two-stroke engines.


Environmentalists raised concerns about the noise and the air pollution.

"There was a blue haze of exhaust at the entrance stations, while big lines of snowmobiles waited to get into the park. It was even so bad that park rangers were having to wear respirators," recalls Tim Stevens.

Stevens knew a resolution would not be easy. Snow mobiles were so noisy and dirty, and yet they were gaining in popularity. Besides hotels and other businesses near the park's four gates depended on snowmobile tours to attract customers during the winter months.

He recalls telling a joke to a group of environmentalists that his then-newborn son would likely get his driver's license before the government could come up with a resolution that would stick.

"And now he's a freshman in college," Stevens recalls.

Through the years, the National Park Service came up with seven different plans for snowmobiles in Yellowstone. Snow mobile enthusiasts and environmentalists challenged one after another in court.

Hotel owner Clyde Seely remembers his bleakest moment in this long struggle was about ten years ago, when he heard on the night before the winter season was supposed to start that a federal judge had decided not to allow snow mobiles.

"Talk about a bomb," he recalls.

Environmentalists had their low moments too, such as when the Bush administration authorized 950 snowmobiles per day in Yellowstone.

This long saga makes it all the more remarkable that nearly everyone seems content with the latest plan from the National Park Service.

Seely says he'll have to buy new snow mobiles for his tours into the park to meet the new requirements. But even that's OK with him.

The rule provides incentives for snowmobile makers to develop even cleaner vehicles. If they do, the park service may increase the numbers of vehicles allowed into the park.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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