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Snowmobilers Riding High in Yellowstone

Riders see the end of a plan to ban them from the national park as a win over elitism.

March 09, 2003|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — They call themselves bubbleheads.

With their bulbous helmets, puffy one-piece snowsuits and molded rubber boots, snowmobilers can resemble Teletubbies on winter vacation.

Astride their machines, they have been variously accused of keeping schoolchildren awake at night, creating a public health hazard and molesting wildlife. Every year, a couple of hundred snowmobile drivers are arrested in the park for trespassing and hooliganism.

But a rule to be adopted this month by the Bush administration will affirm their right to be here. After decades of venomous debate, snowmobilers have won. As they lined up recently at an entrance to America's oldest national park, snowmobilers said they saw the policy as nothing less than a victory for democracy.

"There are places in the world for everyone and this is a national park, here for everyone," said Greg Mathiowetz of Rapid City, S.D. "We have as much right to be here as the cross-country skiers."

Two Kinds of Votes

The issue highlights a fundamental disconnect: Public comment solicited last year by the National Park Service ran 4 to 1 against allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone. On the other hand, the sport is far more popular than the only other modes of traveling around the park in winter -- in cramped, van-like snow coaches or on skis or snowshoes. Three of 4 winter visitors enter the park at the controls of a snowmobile.

After decades of unfettered use, snowmobiles in Yellowstone were scheduled to be banned by the Clinton administration, but the prohibition to go into effect this winter never did. The Bush administration's reversal of that policy will impose the first-ever cap on the number of snowmobilers that can enter the park on a given day -- although 35% more of the machines will be allowed than the historical daily average.

Even though Park Service studies document environmental damage by snowmobiles, Yellowstone officials said their plan is meant to strike a balance between protecting park resources and allowing access.

"It's been a very controversial and sensitive situation," said Yellowstone Supt. Suzanne Lewis. "The process has been collaborative. I've listened to a lot of folks tell me about their strong feelings on this issue. We will monitor the situation and make any appropriate changes."

New Engines

The plan requires that the majority of machines allowed in the park be powered by four-stroke instead of two-stroke engines. These snowmobiles are somewhat quieter and cleaner. When the machines are massed at a park entrance with engines idling and exhaust billowing, the differences can be difficult to appreciate.

Despite the snowmobiles' required modifications, skiers such as Sarah Michael of Sun Valley, Idaho -- whose husband leads cross-country ski tours in portions of the park not accessible to the machines -- say that even the quieter models emit a keening whine that can be heard deep in the backcountry.

Snowmobilers, including Lee Amaral from Eagle, Idaho, see no reason to accommodate skiers at their expense.

"Cross-country skiing is an elitist sport," Amaral said. "Tell them to take up yoga and get a video to watch it in their living room. The tree huggers' experience is this: They hike in with their Sierra Club tent, down-filled sleeping bag and aluminum snowshoes, and there is no one there but their fellow Earth muffins."

Rumbling through the park on a recent weekend morning, some snowmobilers seemed unfazed by their effect on the surroundings.

"After a day of riding you smell like smoke, it really stinks," agreed Mark Golembeski, who brought his wife and children along on snowmobiles to explore the park. "But I don't see how that's so bad. If you've ever been here in the summer, with all the cars, I don't see how anyone can say snowmobiles are worse."

Yet after more than 10 years and hundreds of studies, scientists and health officials say that the machines' acrid smell, noxious emissions and insistent whine threaten the health of visitors, park employees and wildlife. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, which supported the ban, the emissions from a single snowmobile can equal that of 100 cars. And rangers working entrance stations have been issued hearing protection.

Town Relies on Riders

Nowhere was the new policy welcomed more than in West Yellowstone, Mont., the main staging area for snowmobiles entering the park. During Yellowstone's snowmobile season, which begins in December and continues into March, the town is transformed into a buzzing hive of machines that are free to tool around trails in town.

More than 90% of the town's $2.5-million budget is derived from its resort tax, with snowmobiling tourists paying the lion's share.

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