Snowmobilers Riding High in Yellowstone

Times Staff Writer

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.

And, when it comes to shelling out for souvenirs, dinner and drinks, merchants say it's the snowmobile crowd that spends money, not the parsimonious cross-country skiers. According to a recent survey, tourists visiting Yellowstone on snowmobiles spent about $225 a day in the park's gateway communities.

"Snowmobilers spend every dime in their pocket and save just enough to get them home," said West Yellowstone Mayor Jerry Johnson, who testified on Capitol Hill in opposition to the ban. Like many town officials, Johnson runs a snowmobile-rental business.

Still, not everyone in town is happy to endure the ragged revving of engines that carries on far into the night, or at least until the bars close. The town's schoolchildren were behind a ballot issue a few years ago that called for a curfew on operating snowmobiles. The measure was narrowly defeated.

Les McBirnie, a former city councilman, owns a bicycle and video store. He recalled a recent scene that played out on his doorstep. Two men who had been out drinking crashed their snowmobiles in front of his store. One guy rode off to get help, then came back and accidentally ran over his pal, who was sprawled in the snow.

"The city has catered to the yahoo clientele," McBirnie said, nodding at the machines whizzing past his shop. "I think that the people who are running around here speeding and riding drunk need to understand that they are guests in town. They say, 'I'm spending money here.' Yes, but that does not give them the right to do anything they want."

Unruly Visitors

Park and U.S. Forest Service officials have caught snowmobilers trespassing in wilderness areas of nearby national forests and illegally crossing into the park. Although there are few restrictions on riding in national forests, snowmobilers are allowed only on roads in Yellowstone.

"We know there's a contingent of riders who disagree with the philosophy of wilderness," said Bob Rossman, a former forest supervisor in Shoshone National Forest, along Yellowstone's eastern border. "Their mind-set is that this country has been taken from them. Marked wilderness boundary signs are shot up and run over."

Rossman said the combination of excessive speed and alcohol causes numerous accidents on roads in the park and forest and on state highways.

"Snowmobiling is, to my mind, much more damaging than has been heretofore recognized," he said. "These are fatalities waiting to happen."

Mike Finley, former Yellowstone superintendent and a 32-year Park Service employee, said it takes only a few unruly riders to disturb wildlife.

"For years, I watched bison being harassed up and down the roads," Finley said. "We have films showing bison being stampeded. I saw snowmobiles weaving in and out, causing the bison to kick and stampede. It absolutely offends and stuns the consciousness."

Still, officials say hot-dogging in the park is not what it used to be, notwithstanding a recent drunken demolition derby.

According to a ranger's report of the Jan. 29 incident, five Oregon men left a bar near Old Faithful, fired up their machines and raced 30 miles in a snowstorm to the gate at West Yellowstone. By the time park rangers caught up with them, one driver had blown an engine. Another had plunged into the Firehole River. And, not long after pulling him out, three of his companions had plowed into each other.

The five were charged with a number of offenses, including drunk driving, unsafe vehicle operation, damage to resources, riding illegally at night, failing to register their machines and interference with authorities.

A Bill to Ban

"National parks are not places where anything goes," said U.S. Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who visited Yellowstone recently as part of a congressional contingent on a fact-finding tour. "You can't go hang gliding off El Capitan. You can't put a highway down the middle of the Grand Canyon. There are restrictions."

But the situation in Yellowstone isn't likely to change anytime soon. Despite bipartisan support, legislation introduced in Congress on Thursday to reinstate the snowmobile ban is given little chance of success.

"There's no political will for this in Congress, we know that," said Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel, a Pennsylvania Democrat who was part of the visiting delegation. "But we can raise hell and we can scream. It's going to take public outrage."

Outrage is pretty tough to come by on the snow-packed roads of Yellowstone, where most riders report that snowmobiles are simply a uniquely fun way to visit the park.

David and Sherry Roberts of South Jordan, Utah, say their children read about the park's wildlife and then use snowmobiles to gain glimpses of bison and elk.

Michael Skirucha, a burly Chicagoan, says that seeing the park on cross-country skis is not an option for him.

"I don't have the ability to ski, so this is my access," he said, as he patted his idling green snowmobile. "They try to make us feel like outlaws. We're not."

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