Leaving Tracks

Are Wildlife or Snowmobiles Being Chased from America’s Parks?

It is a cold winter morning. Motorists wait in traffic, their sputtering engines coughing a gray haze into the air. The smog has grown so prevalent, carbon monoxide threatens the health of employees issuing passes to the vehicles. Fresh air is pumped into the enclosed employee kiosks to alleviate this hazard. This is not a toll road. This is not New York—not even New Haven. This is the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. And the motorists? Some of the estimated 60,000 snowmobilers who enter Yellowstone each year.

Snowmobiles and bison share an uneasy coexistence on a snow-covered road in Yellowstone National Park. The park hosts 60,000 snowmobilers every year.Jeff Henry

Snowmobiles have become an increasingly popular form of recreational motorized vehicle in the last decade—both in and out of national parks. Supporters, like Christine Jourdain, executive director of the American Council of Snowmobiling Association (ACSA), see them as “a critical mode of transportation in the winter.” Sean Smith, public lands director of the Bluewater Network, a project of the Earth Island Institute, disagrees, arguing that snowmobiles impact air and water quality, wildlife and people’s enjoyment of parks. Caught in the middle of this public land tug-of-war is the National Park Service, which has to weigh the importance of species and land protection against the case of snowmobiling “nature enthusiasts.”

Smith, a former park ranger, says that the effects of snowmobiles permitted at 27 national parks are cumulative, compounded by two-stroke engines that spew up to 30 percent of their fuel out the tailpipe and emit highly toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.Jourdain calls these claims “absolutely not true,” likening the visibility of smog at Yellowstone to car exhaust in winter. “Bluewater will also tell you snowmobiles violate air quality standards, but there is no proof of this,” she says.

Noise pollution is a little less debatable. “Recent noise studies show that 95 percent of the time a visitor is at Old Faithful in winter he or she will be hearing snowmobiles,” wrote Donald J. Barry of the Department of the Interior in a report to several federal committees. “Snowmobile noise is inescapable and persistent?this is not the type of experience that visitors to our national parks want.” In defense, the ACSA faults riders who modify or overhaul factory exhaust systems, maintaining responsible riders of new vehicles are not noise polluters.

Even if snowmobiles are ridden in a responsible manner, do they affect wildlife more than the scores of hikers and cross-country skiers visiting parks? Not surprisingly, the answer depends on who is asked. “Absolutely not,” Jourdain asserts. Jack Anderson, a former Yellowstone superintendent, agrees with her. “We found that elk, bison, moose, even the fawns, wouldn’t move away unless a machine was stopped and a person started walking,” he says. “As long as you stayed on the machine and the machine was running, they never paid any attention.”

Smith, on the other hand, says snowmobiles affect “just about any animal that’s active in wintertime.” Examples range from a denning bear roused out of hibernation and wolves abandoning snowmobile-populated feeding areas, to large hoofed animals forced out of habitats. He also cites cases of unnatural survival, in which snowmobile tracks allow for easier hunting or migration and upset population balances. Gerry Gaumer, public affairs specialist for the National Park Service, says delinquent snowmobilers have chased bison around “while the animals are trying to conserve all possible energy.”

Attempts to regulate snowmobiling in national parks date back to the executive orders of Presidents Nixon and Carter. Nixon prohibited snowmobiles, unless parks opened dedicated areas that did not threaten “the natural, aesthetic, or scenic value.” Carter ordered officials to close designated snowmobiling areas that appeared to be damaged by the vehicles. “If the Park Service determines snowmobiles to be detrimental, they can be banned,” affirms Gaumer, which brings the snowmobiling dilemma up-to-date.

In January 1999, Bluewater and 60 other environmental organizations petitioned the Park Service to ban all recreational snowmobiles from national parks. Snowmobiling violates the National Park Service Organic Act, claims Bluewater, which mandates that park resources not be impaired. Representative Barbara Cubin (R-WY) responded by introducing a bill to allow snowmobiles in every national park. It was withdrawn in July, Smith says, due to lack of support.

Yellowstone, whose West Entrance hazes up on chilly winter mornings, was already embroiled in a snowmobiling controversy when the Park Service accepted the organizations’ petition last April. Its own investigation, which included public comment, culminated in an environmental impact statement with a “preferred alternative”: completely banning recreational snowmobiling. If enacted, Yellowstone will provide mass transit opportunities for winter visitors. One type is a snow coach, which park spokesperson Marsha Karle describes as “a van converted with tracks” holding between nine and 12 visitors.

While the Park Service decides whether snowmobiles remain recreational transportation in the rest of the parks, neither Smith nor Jourdain are willing to back down. Both claim the law is on their side. Both are awaiting the outcome of the battle with intense anticipation. Both say a defeat will only encourage them to fight harder—in court.

Jourdain sees the battle as one over public land. “We think that public land should be open to the public,” she says. When asked whether ACSA would support a limit to how many vehicles would be allowed (an option now being considered by the Park Service), she says she considers the question almost insulting. “We suggested limiting the numbers a year ago, but the Park Service wouldn’t listen. This administration has proved itself anti-access. We’ve been trying to work with them, but we have not even been invited to the table.”

Smith is equally vexed, but his ire is directed toward motorized recreation. Bluewater strives for regulation against all future vehicles like snowmobiles. “What we are going to see are even more forms of motorized recreation,” he predicts. “We hope [the Park Service] can learn from the mistakes on snowmobiling. Once a recreational vehicle gets into a park, it’s very hard to get out.”