Groups that once argued fiercely over motorized winter travel in Yellowstone National Park are now praising a new policy first tried out last winter. They’ll be talking over the Park’s winter management plan Monday morning.
"We’re having a public meeting on Monday morning to talk about our draft Adaptive Management Plan."
That’s Christina Mills an outdoor recreation planner for Yellowstone. Mills is one of the people charged with monitoring how people access the park during the winter, particularly those who use snow coaches and snowmobiles.
Last year, the park put in place a plan to limit the number of snow coaches and snowmobiles allowed into Yellowstone during the winter, with the goal of giving visitors the best possible experience, while having the lightest impact on the park, including its wildlife. It’s an "adaptive" plan, and Mills says that means the rules can be changed as officials learn what works and what doesn’t.
"We are continually learning new things, gathering new data. And that adaptive management program allows us to incorporate that new knowledge with public input, and gives us a platform to keep the public continually involved in what we’re doing and what we’re learning about winter use in Yellowstone," says Mills.
For example, the plan looks at the effect of limited "noncommercial" snowmobile use. It’s an alternative that was introduced last year. Instead of touring the park on a snowmobile as part of a group led by a guide, five individual snowmobilers are allowed into the park from each Yellowstone entrance, several times a day.
Jack Welch, a vice president of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group that promotes snowmobile use, says it’s a system that worked last winter, and he wants to see more of it.
"We hope that will be expanded because that’s an opportunity, which I afforded myself of last winter, of going into the park, following the rules and regulations, taking the training course, having the proper BAT equipment, and enjoying the park with four other snowmobiles, a total of 10 people, on our own terms."
Snowmobile use was cut back severely just after the turn of the century after years of complaints about the noise and pollution from vast numbers of snow machines roaring through the park. The limited use of non-commercial snowmobiles was negotiated by park officials, snowmobile enthusiasts, and conservationists, and it includes lower speed limits, as well as requiring modern equipment that meets noise and pollution standards.
Bart Melton, regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association, calls it a solid compromise.
"We’re glad that those that were on the other side of the issue for so many years, that we’re able to find middle ground and agreement on what the right plan would look like."
But there are still points of disagreement that might come up in the Monday meeting. Some Yellowstone tour companies tried out a new kind of snow coach that rides on enormous low-pressure tires. They might burn less fuel compared to coaches that use the usual metal tracks.
Bart Melton says they deserve a close look.
"When it comes to snow coaches, we’re testing to see what makes sense. And over time, once we see which technology makes the most sense on the ground, hopefully that’s the technology that will be adopted and required by the park service."
But Jack Welch from the Blue Ribbon Coalition is skeptical of the newer coaches.
"It affects the experience for the other folks, the people on snowmobiles and tracked vehicles because unless you have exactly the right conditions, you get substantial rutting, and that is bad," Welch says.
Welch also says he’s concerned that introducing a new kind of vehicle in the park environment could draw unpredictable reactions from wildlife, which have grown accustomed to the traditional tracked coaches.
Christina Mills says park staff will be paying attention to that issue.
"Our staff survey various segments of the park where we have the highest over-snow-vehicle uses, and record and observe the interactions between over-snow-vehicles and wildlife, so that’s something we’ve been monitoring for a number of years."
She says a key part of the draft Winter Use Adaptive Management Plan is deciding, with input from park users and various interest groups, what park staff need to measure, and finding the best way to make those measurements.
And it’s that “adaptive management” process that has drawn praise from snowmobile enthusiasts and conservationists who were at loggerheads for years.
"I think the park has done an incredibly good job of engaging all the stakeholders," says Blue Ribbon’s Jack Welch.
That engagement process continues Monday morning starting at 10:00 a.m. at the Park’s Visitor Center in West Yellowstone.