Shame in a 'showcase'

By Mark Brazil | Jan 16, 2003


Second of two parts I ended my last story by saying, “If it is wolves, or winter wilderness, you want to see, don’t waste time wondering — get to Yellowstone! But please, when you’re there, don’t rent a two-stroke snowmobile! I’ll explain why in my next column.”

So here’s why.

Real ice-cold, frosty winter — with deep snow and clouds of steam rising from hot springs — is magical. When the sunlight glints off icicles as if through diamond fragments, and powder snow is falling on a frosted white crust, it’s simply spectacular.

Part of the magic of this season is the hushed nature of the sounds, like being in the greatest cathedral of them all — but where all life seems reverently respectful of the harsh conditions. Snow muffles wildlife calls, whether they are wolf howls or woodpecker taps. Snow brings its own peace, the cotton-wool denseness of larger flakes seemingly carrying silence with them.

To walk or ski across such snow country — as you can almost endlessly in Yellowstone National Park, which spans northwest Wyoming, parts of eastern Idaho and southern Montana, is to be accompanied by a range of squeaks, scrunches and shushes. Pause for a moment, cease your own noise-making, calm your breath; the enveloping silence is broken only by the soft calling of a chickadee or a nutcracker, by the gentle rustling of wind in the trees, or by the muffled “whumph!” of accumulated snow falling from a branch.

Then, sure enough, along come the snowmobiles, whose revving, whining and roaring are so loud their noise is hard to bear (unless you are astride one of these polluting machines, muffled in a helmet and with your earplugs firmly inserted). They come shattering the peace of winter in long lines, each two-seater often carrying just one person. Twice as much machinery, noise and pollution as necessary.

It was almost a year ago that I visited Yellowstone, the world’s first and still its showcase national park. I traveled by snow-coach and cross-country skis, revelling in the peace and beauty of the magnificent landscapes, enjoying the wildlife, the scenery and the natural sounds. Throughout that stay, though, I had my ear to the ground — literally, so that I could dodge the arrival of the next wagon train of noise; and metaphorically, for the debate over the future of the noise-machines.

In March 2002, the talk was of ways the Yellowstone snowmobile industry might be regulated — whether by imposing an outright ban, by capping numbers allowed into the park each day, by switching all machines from two-stroke to four-stroke engines (the latter being quieter and less polluting) — or by some combination of these measures.

At first sight, the town of West Yellowstone was like the Wild West meets biker hell, with packs of machines thronging the streets and hitched in ranks outside every bar and hotel. Meet the folks riding them, though, and you soon discover they’re not Hell’s Angels of the snows, but smartly clad tourists from across the U.S. and Europe who seem to know little and care less about the issue they are part of.

The establishment of such a stunning park as Yellowstone back in 1872 was an amazing stroke of leadership — but what happened last year is another black mark against America’s currently failed leadership vis-a-vis climate change, the environment and the Kyoto Protocol.

Limitations expected

After the National Parks Service had identified wide-ranging reasons for phasing out the recreational use of snowmobiles in the park, these were widely discussed in winter 2001-2002. It was clear at that point that limitations or an outright ban would be imposed during the following winter.

Then, reportedly in response to public pressure, in October the situation was dramatically reversed to allow up to 35 percent more snowmobiles into Yellowstone and the neighboring Grand Teton National Park in the full knowledge that this would increase air pollution, noise and health threats to people and wildlife in some of America’s most treasured places.

Allowing continued snowmobile use in national parks makes a mockery of the U.S. government’s responsibility to protect the nation’s beautiful places. As well, the astonishing about-face on this issue is a shameful and sad blow for the national parks movement worldwide.

The threats of the snowmobile industry here are to wildlife and to people. Wild animals wintering in Yellowstone face major ecological challenges — survival is not easy in the cold and snow. Unfortunately, interactions between elk, bison and snowmobiles are common, and the plan to increase snowmobiles places wildlife at significantly greater risk. Mortality caused by snowmobiles is expected to increase, as will harassment, displacement and physiological stress.

Phasing out snowmobiles and replacing them with snow-coaches (fewer vehicles, each carrying greater numbers of passengers) would reduce vehicle/animal conflicts from daily or weekly occurences to none at all.

Many of Yellowstone’s key attractions are adjacent to access roads, and already many winter visitors struggle to hear the park’s unique sounds of geysers and mud pots through the “white noise” of snowmobiles. Indeed, with increased snowmobile access, it is estimated that visitors will experience snowmobile noise more than 50 percent of the time around Old Faithful and other popular sites.

Aside from conservation and wildlife issues, there is the public-health issue. Government policy is turning Yellowstone’s “great outdoors” into a health hazard for people with any kind of respiratory weakness. Park employees regularly subjected to inhaling the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide in the snowmobiles’ exhaust frequently suffer headaches, nausea and dizziness. In addition, these pollutants also form a haze that compromises views of Yellowstone’s famous scenery.

Under the government’s new plan, there will be twice as much carbon monoxide and six times more nitrogen oxide in Yellowstone’s air. I can’t wait for the first Yellowstone visitor’s lawsuit against the government for causing respiratory illness.