Professional guides who make their living escorting visitors into Yellowstone National Park say the phaseout of snowmobiles underway in the park this winter is improving conditions and delighting customers and that both trends bode well for repeat business in future seasons.
Despite public confusion over changes in the park's winter regulations, snowcoach visitation was up in December compared to ten-year averages. Statistics provided by the National Park Service reflect that 18 percent more visitors traveled into the park's North, West, South, and East entrances on snowcoaches between December 17 and 31 compared to December averages from 1993 to 2002. Through the park's West Entrance at West Yellowstone, Montana, there was a 24 percent increase in snowcoach passengers.
"This year was much quieter than my previous winter visit," said Noreen Campbell of Newark, Delaware about her guided snowcoach trip to Old Faithful in late December. "The air didn't smell. We didn't see wildlife being harassed. We could hear the geysers this time. We saw a pine marten and a fox up close. It was just a much more natural experience--vastly superior to the ever-present noise and fumes I experienced three years ago."
"I took my kids to Old Faithful on a snowcoach last month. Compared to our winter trip a few years ago, the experience was much more enjoyable," said Amy Titgemeier Stevens of Livingston, Montana. "We didn't hear snowmobile noise everywhere we went. The air smelled better and I'm sure it was healthier for us to breathe. Yellowstone seemed like a national park again."
This winter, 493 snowmobiles are allowed through Yellowstone's entrances each day. The National Park Service has reported that the daily limits have been reached on only one day at one entrance. Next winter, the park moves to full public access on snowcoaches. The National Park Service concluded in 2000, and again in 2003 in a supplemental study requested by the Bush Administration, that snowcoaches provide the best protection of visitor and employee health and the greatest reductions of air and noise pollution and disturbance of Yellowstone's wildlife.
Guides say improving conditions in the park this winter and positive reactions from their customers reflect the clear economic benefits of ending snowmobile use within the park, even as it continues on millions of acres of National Forest land.
"I think we're moving toward a more diverse winter economy, which is always a good step to take," said Betsy Robinson, owner of Wild Things Unlimited in Bozeman and a wildlife scientist and Yellowstone guide. "For years, I've had people tell me: 'I'd love to visit Yellowstone in the winter, but I won't because of all that noise and pollution.' I think after this year's uncertainty, those folks will come to Yellowstone in large numbers. We'll see an increase in skiers, sightseers, wildlife watchers, and people who just want to get out and relax in a wild setting."
"My clients who've been in the park before have definitely commented that it's a positive change from what they've experienced before," said Leslie Stoltz a Yellowstone guide from Big Sky, Montana. "It's been a much more pleasant experience…really quiet, much quieter than previous years. You can enjoy all the sensations of the park, the sights, the sounds, without the interference of engine noise and smell."
"I think one thing that has been way underreported is the tremendous cross country ski and snowshoe potential of Yellowstone," said Tom Murphy, owner of Wilderness Photography Expeditions in Livingston, Montana. "When Yellowstone is free of snowmobile noise and pollution, I think we'll see people from all over the world come to ski and snowshoe in the park," Murphy added.
The snowmobile phaseout has prompted praise not only from guides and visitors, but also from public health experts and retired leaders of the National Park Service
In spite of Yellowstone's improving health, the snowmobile industry argued in federal court in Wyoming this week that the snowmobile phaseout should be terminated less than six weeks after it began. Industry attorneys want at least 950 snowmobiles and perhaps an unlimited number to be allowed to roar into Yellowstone each day. The 2003 study completed by the National Park Service at the request of the Bush Administration concluded that such a continuation of snowmobile use would result in ongoing health risks for workers and visitors and pervasive engine noise, haze, and threats to Yellowstone's wildlife.
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