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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone 

As I mentioned the other day, last week I spent a day on a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone National Park. Our tour started in West Yellowstone, Montana and went from there to Old Faithful and back again (via Madison Junction; see this map). In all, it's 60 miles roundtrip. The vast, vast majority of winter visitors to Yellowstone take this route--Old Faithful is the main winter destination in the park.

The New York Times had an article* about snowmobiling in the park this past Tuesday. In general, this article is pretty terrible. It purports to describe a new battle between environmentalists and West Yellowstone businesses, with Montana's Democractic governor, Brian Schweitzer, recently siding with the businesses.

First, some background. Since the end of the Clinton administration (I believe it was one of the last executive orders he signed), new rules have been put into place that (1) ban "two-stroke" snowmobiles from Yellowstone and only allow the much cleaner-burning "four stroke" sleds, (2) ban solo riders from entering the park--you now must be with a tour guide and (3) limit the number of sleds allowed in the park on any given day. These rules do a very good job of balancing the interests of businesses, tourists and the Yellowstone environment.

Ok, so back to the article. Basically, the article really has no point, other than trying to gin up a controversy that doesn't seem to exist. Schweitzer does not want to see two-stroke snowmobiles in the park--he merely wants a few more permits to be allowed each day. As I see it, this is probably a bad idea, unless the permits are issued to allow for additional sleds to turn north to the Canyon from Madison instead of going south to Old Faithful (again, check out the map). The Times article makes is seem like the park is nearly deserted in winter. Let me assure you this is not the case. If anything, there were too many snowmobile tours going in the park last Saturday--it seemed crowded and fairly jam-packed to me. Now, let me tell you that I've also been in the park prior to the new rules taking effect. Unfortunately, I did so on a day in 1998 when the high was minus-18, so on that day there was not much of a crowd and, clearly, that is a not a good day to use as an ex ante frame of reference. Nonetheless, there were PLENTY of snowmobiles rushing to Old Faithful last weekend.

And, the point is that, while Schweitzer does want to change the rules, what he's suggesting is very much at the margin and won't have a great effect on anything overall. Allowing 700 permits instead of 450 is not going to cause the bison to leave (although, as I said, I think this increase would be a bad idea). I guess the point is that I believe the current rules are indeed doing a good job. It would be terrible to ban snowmobiles outright, as Yellowstone is a national treasure that's worth seeing in the beauty of winter. Oh, and I still want to post some pictures up, but I haven't downloaded them from my camera yet.

In other Yellowstone news, this article is interesting.

*unfortunately, I couldn't generate a permalink for this article, so the link will die in a few days
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