Smog-choked Yellowstone mulls snowmobile ban

From Correspondent Natalie Pawelski

March 6, 2000

Web posted at: 5:07 p.m. EST (2207 GMT)

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming (CNN) -- A lawsuit brought by environmental groups has Yellowstone National Park re-examining one of its most popular recreational activities.

The snowmobile has joined hot springs and wildlife as a common sight in Yellowstone, the nation's first national park.

"When you can't hear the wind and the trees and the chirping of birds because it sounds like the Indy 500," said John Catton of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "The park is going downhill and we need to turn that around."

But snowmobile devotees consider the activity a fun way to see the park. Some even like the noise.

"You hear the echoing of the machine coming down through the canyon. It's an exhilarating feeling," said snowmobiler Donna Salizar. "And the animals, it doesn't bother them. You stop. You let them cross the road. You enjoy them."

Visitors riding through Yellowstone might find themselves in an unusual traffic jam -- half bison and half snowmobile. Such close-up encounters, while thrilling for humans, could pose hazards for the giant animals.

"In some circumstances the bison appear to just ignore the vehicle. In other circumstances though we have seen them disturbed and pushed off the road, wasting energy, energy that is so important and valuable for them in the winter," said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Michael Finley.

In addition to providing a sanctuary for wildlife, Yellowstone is considered a Class 1 "Airshed," meaning the U.S. National Park Service has a legal obligation to protect its air quality. Snowmobiles make that mandate difficult to fulfill.

Cars and other vehicles outnumber snowmobiles 16-to-1 in Yellowstone during the course of a year. Even so, studies show snowmobiles are responsible for most of the air pollution in the park.

About 55,000 snowmobiles enter the park each winter at the West Yellowstone entrance. When employees working there reported getting sick, the park found high carbon monoxide levels and had to start pumping fresh air into the entrance booths.

The pollution levels at the west entrance at times range as high as famously smoggy cities like Denver and Atlanta.

It may be hard to believe the small machines could broadly affect the air in Yellowstone, a park bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

But their two-stroke engines spit out 78 percent of the park's carbon monoxide emissions and 94 percent of its hydrocarbons, leaving a smelly blue haze in their wake.

The environmental protection agency said the park should ban all snowmobiles until the air quality situation improves.

That would limit winter access for much of the park to cross-country skiers or people riding in snow coaches, an unusual mass transit option for winter visitors.

A snowmobile ban would mean serious problems for the gateway community of West Yellowstone, which calls itself the snowmobile capital of the world.

"If you cut off snowmobiles in Yellowstone tomorrow or for next season, it would devastate our community. I'm talking about your fire department, your police department, your school system," said West Yellowstone Mayor Jerry Johnson. "The money that come in our winter season is a good portion of the tax dollars that West Yellowstone survives off of.". Like many in Yellowstone, Johnson's family depends on the snowmobile economy for a living.

"They matter because it's our winter economy. It is how we make a living. It's why the town can be open in the wintertime," he said.

Some are pinning their hopes for a solution on a new generation of cleaner, quieter snowmobiles, like a four-stroke prototype being tested by Yellowstone park rangers.

The snowmobile industry has been criticized for not moving faster to bring cleaner machines to market. But it remains unclear when that will happen -- or whether Yellowstone and many other national parks will decide