The snowmobiles of Yellowstone: the single most overhyped, politically charged issue in the entire National Park Service, generating far more migraines than snowmobilers. During the Bush era, ideology trampled all over science like a snowmobile over freshly fallen snow.
Elections have consequences. This year the snowmobile battle appears to have quietly resolved itself (notwithstanding pending litigation), leaving three angry Republicans from Wyoming out in the cold.
The impact of snowmobiles on Yellowstone's wildlife and air quality can't be overstated. Which has more of an impact -- a few hundred snowmobiles per day in the winter, or three million summer visitors? It's counterintuitive, but true, to say the first. Well fed, healthy animals in the summer are not stressed nearly as much by all the cars and people as half starved, freezing animals desperate to conserve energy are by snowmobiles when it's thirty below zero, and most food sources are buried under several feet of snow.
Perhaps the best description of snowmobiles in Yellowstone is penned by a gifted writer for New West (click through to find out who):
I freely admit to having a few very strong biases. Perhaps the most basic, gut-level problem I have is with loud, whining, insistent, exhaust-emitting machines....
So perhaps my utter hatred for snowmobiles comes from the noise. Or maybe the smell.
For years, a small group of West Yellowstone businesses has pushed for snowmobiles (photo credit: Yellowstone Snowmobile Tours). All three Republican members of the Wyoming Congressional delegation have wholeheartedly supported them. The rest of America -- scientists, retired NPS employees, and 94% of the American public -- wants the snowmobiles gone. Thus, litigation; one district court judge handling the cases noted that his involvement began in 1997 and has continued nearly without pause to 2008. To drastically simplify a tangled chronology, the Clinton administration declared a phase-out rule, intended to phase out all snowmobiles in Yellowstone over time; the Bush administration showed the same respect for that rule as it did for the Constitution and the rest of American jurisprudence; matters came to a head in 2008 when one federal judge held that a Bush-approved plan should be discarded as too environmentally insensitive, but a dueling judge was found to perform an end run around the first judge and push the number of permitted snowmobiles up to 720 per day.
Elections have consequences. Last week the NPS announced that the maximum number of snowmobiles would be 318 per day, all using Best Available Control Technology and all accompanied by guides. The decision will cover the next two years, during which yet another environmental impact report will be prepared. Senator Enzi and his fellow Wyoming Republicans immediately denounced the plan: "More people should be allowed in the Park, not less. Yellowstone area businesses deserve more stability knowing what the winter tourist season may bring." Note that Enzi and Barasso opposed the confirmation of Jon Jarvis as NPS director over the snowmobile issue alone. In the meantime, the state of Wyoming has asked a federal court to block the NPS plan, so the issue is not fully settled.
Why are the Wyoming Republicans so vocal? Enzi and his fellow Wyoming Republicans may phrase their actions as protective of small business, but their stated reasons don't make any sense. Nearby trails not in Yellowstone provide recreational opportunities, and the average number of snowmobiles per day in the park has been under 250 in the last few years. Many observers think it's a question of money. I'm not so sure. On Open Secrets, I didn't see any contributions by any relevant business with Yellowstone, snowmobile, or Xanterra (the large multi-park concessionaire) to any Wyoming politician since OpenSecrets first began tracking. Nor has Enzi received significant money from the lodging or recreation industries. The affected businesses may be complaining, but they are not donating. (If anyone spots donations that I missed, please comment accordingly.)
Instead, I'll put forth an alternative theory, one of dominion over and contempt for wilderness. The snowmobiles are simply a politically charged symbol of human dominion over the land. They assault the senses of sight, smell, and sound by leaving tracks across still white wilderness. Support for snowmobiles signals contempt for the wild places of the world, and for the people who care about the idea of wilderness.
In that case, the NPS has nothing to lose by returning to the Clinton-era phaseout of all snowmobiles.