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Volume 29
Number 2
Fall-Winter 2012-2013
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Photo of snowmobilers setting out to enjoy Yellowstone in winter. Credit: NPS/Christina Mills Case Study
Exploring the fuel efficiency of oversnow vehicles in Yellowstone National Park
By Molly M. Nelson and Wade M. Vagias
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
Previous OSV fuel use studies
Study purpose
Discussion and implication
Study limitations and acknowledgments
Literature cited
About the authors
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Photo of snowmobilers setting out to enjoy Yellowstone in winter.

NPS/Molly Nelson

Snowmobilers set out to enjoy Yellowstone in winter. The preferred alternative for Yellowstone winter use calls for guided trips comprising groups averaging seven snowmobiles or a single snowcoach per “transportation event” and limiting the number of these events. The new management approach aims to increase the proportion of time natural soundscapes predominate and reduce disturbances to wildlife while maximizing the number of people who can enjoy the park.

Winter use in Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) has been the subject of ongoing public debate for more than 75 years. Since the 1930s the National Park Service (NPS) and interested stakeholders have debated if and how the park should be accessed in winter. The accompanying sidebar explains the laws that necessitate special winter planning. The past decade of winter use planning and associated rulemaking efforts has been particularly contentious, with debate primarily centered upon the impact of oversnow vehicles (snowmobiles and snowcoaches, collectively OSVs) on wildlife, air quality, and natural soundscapes. To help address these questions, since 1997 Yellowstone has completed four environmental impact statements (EISes)—a fifth is currently in development—and two environmental assessments (EAs) and promulgated three long-term rules, only to have those regulations overturned by federal courts. The 2001 rule to phase out snowmobiles from Yellowstone, signed off on the last day of the Clinton administration in January 2001, was delayed by the incoming Bush administration and eventually vacated by the U.S. District Court of Wyoming. Subsequent EISes were completed in 2003 and 2007, both of which were vacated by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (see Yochim 2009 for a discussion of winter planning use in Yellowstone).

Not surprisingly, given the role of Yellowstone National Park in the conservation movement and the American psyche, the ongoing debate about what is best for Yellowstone in winter has polarized stakeholders and elevated the issue to the national spotlight. Organizations, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Sierra Club, and Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR), have, for more than a decade, advocated for the abolition of snowmobiles in favor of a snowcoach-only transportation paradigm. The GYC describes its goal as “to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone in favor of cleaner, quieter, more efficient snowcoaches” (Greater Yellowstone Coalition 2012). Access-oriented organizations and stakeholders, including the Blue Ribbon Coalition, International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, and various state-level snowmobile clubs, have advocated for continued access by snowmobiles, but have not advocated for the elimination of snowcoaches.

Stakeholders’ substantive observations and comments have elevated the level of discourse throughout the numerous winter use planning processes that have transpired over the past 15 years. This continual external examination of data and analyses has worked effectively alongside the park’s own, raising important questions and helping ensure fidelity to the law, use of the best available science, and management decisions that are in the long-term interest of the park and the American people. All the while, new management strategies and OSV technologies introduced in the past decade have served to significantly improve resource conditions. For instance, requiring best available technology (BAT) snowmobiles eliminated the “blue haze” that was common in the park in the 1990s and capped the maximum noise output of a snowmobile (currently the loudest commercial OSVs in the park are snowcoaches). The requirement that all trips be led by guides greatly reduced instances of wildlife harassment.

As resource conditions have improved, some stakeholder groups have sought new reasons to support their respective positions. A concern recently brought to the attention of winter use planning staff is the relative fuel efficiency of OSVs in use in the park. In comments received during the scoping process for the 2012 Winter Use Plan/Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the CNPSR, GYC, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Winter Wildlands Alliance expressed interest in comparing the two different forms of winter transportation modes (snowmobiles and snowcoaches) using “per-visitor” impacts, contending that such analysis “might be most revealing in the context of fuel efficiency and emissions” (emphasis added) (Coalition of National Park Service Retirees et al. 2012). The working assumption is that because snowcoaches hold more people, they are more fuel efficient at the per-person level than snowmobiles.

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This page updated:  22 March 2013

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