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 title=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.
 title= 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.   title=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.)

 title=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.

Originally posted to RLMiller on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 05:04 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip canteen? (52+ / 0-)

    Hike On! is my Tuesday series of diaries devoted to national parks and outdoor adventures.  Y'all are welcome to discuss all national park issues, whether Ken Burns or your latest vacation.  Bring your marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers -- and best of all, bring eye candy and show off your pix!

  •  Remember in the Ken Burns NP series when (18+ / 0-)

    he quotes one of the dept of interior folks as saying that dealing with the politicians in wyoming was like dealing with the Soviet Union...they can't be reasoned with, you just have to trick them or go around them.

    I was paid to post this comment by my cat, but he's a deadbeat.

    by decembersue on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 05:11:17 PM PDT

  •  Animals are at a disadvantage (16+ / 0-)

    against technology,  especially in a national park area, they need to be left alone.  Otherwise what is the point of a national park if not to preserve creatures, habitat and place.

    If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. Dalai Lama

    by ohcanada on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 05:11:33 PM PDT

  •  What do NRA members do in the winter? (9+ / 0-)

    They go snowmobiling in National Parks.  This is about two things...

    Pandering to the camo-wearing crowd, and hoping that they can ruin land to the point that it can't be designated as wilderness down the road.

    Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them. H. L. Mencken

    by Keith930 on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 05:14:40 PM PDT

  •  We took a snow coach tour of Yellowstone (15+ / 0-)

    in February. There is a limit on the number of snowmobiles allowed, and there are fairly strict rules of operation. Two-cycle snowmobiles (much noisier, much worse on emissions) are not allowed. All snowmobiles must travel in limited groups with an official guide.

    Still, I found their presence hideous. Some did NOT respect rules of separation and operation around wildlife, and if they faced consequences for those transgressions, we never learned of it.

    I'd love it if they were excluded from the park. Would never ever miss them.

    "The opposite of war isn't peace, it's CREATION." _ Jonathan Larson, RENT

    by BeninSC on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 05:14:43 PM PDT

    •  You have touched on all of the main issues. (6+ / 0-)

      I have never been in the park and as a general rule avoid the wilderness. It's wild and I would prefer that it stay that way.

      That said, when I crossed the Yellowstone river I did notice that it was beautiful. I stopped and savored it. It should be preserved if it is possible.

    •  I don't think they realize the noise levels (5+ / 0-)

      I hike a fair amount in New York. There is no money to support the parks and the rangers are understaffed and overworked.  So the number of illegal ATV users in the parks has grown.

      I'll be hiking one of the ridge lines in the middle of one of these parks and hear the ATVs going in the valleys.  They are extremely loud.  As it gets colder and the underbrush clears, I know the ATVs will only get worse.

      "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it." -President Theodore Roosevelt

      by DemHikers on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 06:00:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I hear ya (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        DemHikers, Mathazar

        The fine in MN for illegally riding an atv/motorcycle in a state park was so small that people were trashing the parks instead of going to businesses that owned land for them to ride around on.  Now they are on the hook for the cost of restoring the damaged area to the original condition which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

      •  If the issues are noise and pollution... (0+ / 0-)

        then they shouldn't outright ban "snowmobiles".  They should ban any vehicle that creates that level of noise and pollution.  Hence, non-snowmobile vehicles that were noisy or polluting would be banned, but, say, a quiet electric snowmobile would be permitted.

        I always prefer rules that focus on the goals, not the means.

        •  There's also the issue (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          BYw, RLMiller

          of damage to the environment that snowmobiles do, isn't there?

          The world will not be saved by old minds with new programs. If the world is saved, it will be saved by new minds - with no programs. The Story of B

          by Audri on Thu Oct 22, 2009 at 05:27:07 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I don't know (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Audri

            Do they do direct damage?  Or is the damage only from noise and pollution?  Because that's what most people complain about.  I can't imagine what a clean, quiet electric snowmobile would "damage" apart from leaving tracks in the snow.

    •  The two stroke(cycle) motors were bad (0+ / 0-)

      Two stroke motors are gross polluters. They are banned most everywhere, and even in yard equipment uses their share of the market is falling.
      Snow mobiles do not kill wolves, aren't made by the NRA, and many people who love and support protecting our resources own and ride them.

      Give me a public option, or give me Death!

      by tlemon on Wed Oct 21, 2009 at 08:32:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The right wing meme in Australia as well as the (10+ / 0-)

    US is conflating an argument that it is either Environment OR Economy.
    So snowmobiles, despite this having as you indicate Zero likelihood of impacting business, are seen as a potential economic driver and thus any efforts to limit their access so that the area is not excessively subjected to damage (which will drop its value to visitors anyway), is seen as an affront to this.

    A mindset we simply have to change to :
    There can be no economy without an environment. The two are mutually dependent, not mutually exclusive.

    Great photos and interesting diary.

    Those folks who are trying to get in the way of progress - let me tell you, I'm just getting started. I don't quit. I'm not tired; I'm just getting started.

    by Unenergy on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 05:28:04 PM PDT

    •  EPA and other agencies (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BoogieMama, Unenergy, RLMiller

      are still bound by cost/benefit analysis. This is part of Executive Order 12866, issued under Clinton. President Obama has been conducting a review of this important executive order. There are several academic papers advocating doing away with this requirement.

      Obama almost immediately revoked Bush's Executive Order 13422, which made things even more slanted toward economic powers.

      I never understood people who could look at nature's beauty and only think of dollar signs.

  •  the snowmobile was originally.... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, marina, OHdog, greenchiledem

    ....a boxy-looking utilitarian thing, like the original Jeep.  

    The design using tracks at the rear and steerable skis at the front, was invented in the 30s or 40s by Canadian Irinee Sicard (who also invented the rotary snowplow), for urgent uses such as to enable doctors to reach patients in snowbound villages.  Snowmobiles were adopted quickly by police and rescue services, and then by businesses and occasionally by private individuals.

    Only in the late 1960s did they start becoming toys in a manner similar to off-road motorcycles.  The one shown in your third picture has that "aggressive styling" at the front, that makes it look like an outer space war vehicle you'd see in a science fiction movie, thereby reinforcing the "toy" mentality but adding an aggressive attitude.  

    In terms of ecological damage on a global scale, the use of vehicles as toys is relatively unimportant: their CO2 emissions pale into insignificance beside the major sources, coal and commuting.   The problem arises when they are used in sensitive ecosystems, per Yellowstone and other places, where they create severe localized impacts.  

    So the solution to this is to establish racetracks and courses with terrain for those who want to play "Star Wars in Snow."  Take the snowmobilers out of the national parks and other sensitive ecosystems entirely, by giving them something "better" for the purpose of flat-out speed and tricky maneuvers.  The US Gov could do this on public land for all I care, or fast-track a permitting process for private land.  

    For the utilitarian applications of snowmobiles, what's needed is a power unit with the best available pollution controls and noise controls, and a design type that is built for practical use rather than recreational use.  

    Over time, peak oil is going to solve this problem for us, as the price of petroleum fuels makes "recreational" driving of any kind expensive to the point of discouraging it entirely.  

  •  The dual purpose of the National Park Service is (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KayCeSF, marina, greenchiledem, RLMiller

    to protect the natural wilderness while educating and inspiring the public.

    "...to promote and regulate the use of the...national parks...which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

    National Park Service Organic Act, 16 U.S.C.1.

    It is hard to do both, but nowhere in the National Park Service Organic Act will you find anything about "dominion" over the land.  That sounds very much like fundamentalist religious right wing speak.

    I wish elections had consequences.

    by Susan Grigsby on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 05:37:53 PM PDT

    •  Funny you should mention that... (4+ / 0-)

      because I edited out of the final version a link and paragraph on rightwing politics becoming a fundamentalist religion:

      Perhaps the single most profound change in our political culture over the last 30 years has been the transformation of conservatism from a political movement, with all the limitations, hedges and forbearances of politics, into a kind of fundamentalist religious movement, with the absolute certainty of religious belief.

      I don't mean "religious belief" literally. This transformation is less a function of the alliance between Protestant evangelicals, their fellow travelers and the right (though that alliance has had its effect) than it is a function of a belief in one's own rightness so unshakable that it is not subject to political caveats. In short, what we have in America today is a political fundamentalism, with all the characteristics of religious fundamentalism and very few of the characteristics of politics.

  •  A few years ago, snowmobilers chased (7+ / 0-)

    down a bison which died.  What fun!  And those folks from Idaho also just won the right to kill off whole packs of wolves in Yellowstone.  There is a sheep station near the park, grazing on government land and a couple of sheep may have been killed by wolves.....so major uproar - "kill the wolves!"  I'm disgusted that Ken Salazar did not listen to all the environmental groups or park wildlife biologists and allowed the hunt to begin.  One pack is already slaughtered.  Please write, email or call the Dept. of Interior to tell them to ban the hunting of wolves and the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone.

    "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." - JFK

    by moose67 on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 05:47:10 PM PDT

  •  This is good news, (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, greenchiledem, DemHikers, RLMiller

    I'll never forget when Bush fought to allow more snowmobiles, that video of Bush with a haughty smirk as he climbed onto his snowmobile and zoomed off showering snow on the cameraman.  Jerk in Chief!

    Excellent diary!

  •  The Grand Canyon has a 'no-motor' time (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marina, OHdog, RLMiller

    frame for boats in the fall. I had a fantastic 'wilderness-like' experience river running without the noise of the motors.
    I have visited Yellowstone years ago in the fall and this year during peak summer season. It was hard to imagine the place in winter with motorized vehicles. I feel that Winter is a season that should be experienced with motors silenced.
    Glad to see the cut-back.  
    Thanks for the news.

  •  The noise and the smell. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, OHdog, DemHikers, RLMiller

    It's the noise and the smell...

    I gotta join you in the totally biased camp.  -rb

    Elephant: (noun) A mouse designed by committee.

    by rb137 on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 07:06:56 PM PDT

  •  I was one of those people (0+ / 0-)

    who snowmobiled in Yellowstone before all the regulations.

    It was wonderful.

    The 4-stroke engines were not too loud and the smell...if you have ever been to Yellowstone you would know that the worst smells come from the land.

    I have been to Yellowstone in the summer, too.  The noise, traffic and pollution are disturbing to the guests as well as the animals.

    I am all for limiting the winter visitors to a reasonable number, but don't eliminate it.  Same goes for summer as well.

    An honest man in the White House is a threat to crooks and liars

    by AppleP on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 07:34:10 PM PDT

    •  Let's compromise Applep (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RLMiller

      I am for letting unlimited numbers of snowmobiles use Yellowstone during the entire month of July. Otherwise ban the bitches.

      Health is the first requisite after morality - T. Jefferson

      by OHdog on Tue Oct 20, 2009 at 08:22:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Yeah, well ... I was one of those people (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mcjoan, Audri, BYw, RLMiller

      on cross country skis before all the regulations ...

      I will NEVER forget skiing back to Old Faithful one beautiful, clear snowy morning in January. Pristine, cold, clear, beautiful.

      Until we got close to the lodge. Suddenly the sky was obscured by an opaque cloud of blue-gray smoke. The noise from nearly a mile away was an unbelievable roar. The smell of idling diesel ... well, I am stunned, simply stunned that you would deign to compare that smell to anything in nature.

      We skied up to the lodge for lunch and had to wend our way through hundreds of idling snowmobiles waiting to gas up next to the lodge.

      It was the most gawd-awful mess I have ever seen.

      "Let us not look back to the past with anger, nor towards the future with fear, but look around with awareness." James Thurber

      by annan on Wed Oct 21, 2009 at 09:07:33 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Look to the Blue Ribbon Coalition (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ohcanada, OHdog, Ebby, RLMiller, Mathazar

    and the wise use movement for some answers on Enzi etc. The Blue Ribbon Coalition is a non-profit, heavily-funded by American Petroleum, Exxon, Honda, Yamaha, etc., to promote motorized use of public lands. They spread a lot of anti-environmental messages, while maintaining a front of being good trail stewards. Because of their excellent funding, they have had great success pushing motorized use legislation and bending rules.

    Aligning with the Blue Ribbon Coalition on snowmobile use is a kind of a "dogwhistle" to the wise use-ers, whose gripes with federal management of public lands encompass hatred of endangered species laws and any restrictions on "hunting and fishing and drinking and driving," which is big time fun in Wyoming (and Idaho, Montana, and Nevada, but apparently not so much in Utah). When you're not building 300-foot walls of fire on BLM land, that is, which they don't let you do any more, either. Damn park pigs.

    So where was I? Blue Ribbon Coalition, in addition to pushing for increased motorized use of public lands also teamed with the American Recreation Coalition to push for the "fee demo" program, under which Americans get charged for stopping at developed recreation sites, even to pee. I'm not against the idea of users paying for their amenities, but it gripes me that it costs more for me to pee in the Uintas or the Prescott National Forest than it does to graze a cow there for a month. Figure that one. And then the motorized users should have to pay that much more.

    Anyway, the BRC and the ARC pretend to be big stewards & have a lot of support from a lot of big important people (and a lot of cred among people who don't have time to research their long, ugly histories), but their agenda is and has always been increased development and monetization of public lands. They do look at the gorgeous landscapes of America and see dollar signs, snack bars, pavement everywhere, packed with personal vehicles and recreational vehicles. It's all pretty sick, and they do have undue influence on those western legislators who want to be seen as sagebrush rebels rather than treehuggers.

    •  Thank you! I didn't know that, (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      vcmvo2, la urracca, Ebby

      and it's good to know about the dogwhistle groups.

      •  I spent an unhappy night (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        la urracca, Ebby, RLMiller

        researching the history of the fee demo program, for a history of public lands I did a while back. It really opened my eyes to the powerful, corporate-backed forces who see developed recreation on America's public lands as an unmilked cash cow.

        There was a great report put out by the Congressional Research Service in '96, at the start of the fee demo program, called "Taking From the Taxpayers" about public subsidies of corporate use of public lands. I am sure it's much worse now, but it's worth a read. These corporations rape the lands, then back coalitions to lobby for charging day trippers, picnickers and hikers to use the land.

        BTW, I am still trying to find time to adopt Bingaman on the ACES! I promise I am trying to commit!

  •  I live in Wyoming and use a snowmobile for work. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mcjoan, Audri, BYw, ontheleftcoast, RLMiller

    And I hope they're kicked plum out of Yellowstone. They've no business there. Yellowstone is sacred.

    It rubs the loofah on its skin or else it gets the falafel again.

    by Fishgrease on Wed Oct 21, 2009 at 08:33:32 PM PDT

  •  snowmobiles have their place (0+ / 0-)

    I live in Alaska where we have designated snowmachine trails and the people I ride with are very responsible.  We volunteer to build and mark trails that are used by hikers and cross country skiiers and work hard to aquire trail easements that are on private property. Please don't judge all sled heads by the irresponsible minority.

    There are people who would never be able to experience the wilderness without the use of a snowmobile.  The 4-stroke motors are quiet.  When a snowmachine is ridden responsibly it does not rip up the land like some of the irresponsible minority hikers who leave garbage.

    I can understand limiting snowmachines -- to certain trails, at certain speeds and even on designated days of the week, I'd even understand a limited number, maybe by lottery. But I can't accept a blanket stereotype that excludes a segment of the population without open-minded dialogue.

  •  Better ban the RVs too... (0+ / 0-)

    They create more pollution than the snowmobiles!

  •  What bullshit (0+ / 0-)

    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.

    It seems to me that this is less about protecting Yellowstone, and more about exerting power over what you believe are acceptable or unacceptable ways for people to enjoy nature.

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