By Ruffin Prevost
In what is by now a familiar exercise to many longtime observers of the debate over winter use in Yellowstone National Park, the National Park Service on Tuesday released for public comment a proposed rule outlining the use of snowmobiles and snow coaches in the park.
The rule will eventually become the basis for how winter use is managed in Yellowstone. Similar rules proposed over the past decade have been subject to legal challenges from environmental organizations, tourism industry groups and state and local government agencies.
But park managers, local residents and some special interest groups are optimistic that this latest plan, which breaks down winter travel into “transportation events,” will dodge litigation and become a lasting standard.
The final plan closely mirrors a draft version released last year. It will manage snowmobile and snow coach traffic by allowing up to 110 so-called “transportation events” each day. On average, that will mean average daily limits of approximately 50 groups of around seven snowmobiles each and a total of 60 snow coaches entering one-at-a-time. Travel over Sylvan Pass will continue under existing guidelines.
A new pilot program will let one non-commercial guide take up to four guests daily through each gate. Details of that program will be worked out later, but guides must pass an online course and will use a government web site to reserve entry dates based on a lottery system.
Publication of the rule in the Federal Register marks the start of a 60-day period for public review and comment. Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk will make a final recommendation to the Park Service Intermountain regional director regarding the direction of winter use. The regional director is expected to issue a record of decision this summer, after which a final rule to implement the decision will be published in the Federal Register in order to allow the park to open for the 2013-14 winter season.
Park managers say the plan could potentially allow more visitors into the park while reducing noise and air pollution.
Conservation groups and gateway communities offered qualified support for the final draft of the plan when it was released in February.
This coming winter season of 2013-14 will be a transition year, during which the park will allow motorized over-snow travel under the same conditions in place for the past four winters: up to 318 commercially guided snowmobiles using so-called best-available technology and up to 78 commercially guided snow coaches daily.
Written comments on the proposed rule may be submitted through the Regulations.gov website, in person, or by mail to Winter Use Planning Team, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. 82190. Comments will not be accepted by phone, fax, or e-mail. All public comments must be received or postmarked by midnight, June 17, 2013.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].