Stop the misinformation about snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park

“Great news,” the Minneapolis TV anchor gleefully reported. “In the month of July, Yellowstone National Park set a record when more than 900,000 people visited the park. The park also set an all-time high for June, when more than 644,000 people visited America’s first national park. Park officials attribute the boost to relatively low gas prices this summer.”

Yep, things are looking up in Yellowstone – attendance records were being broken this past summer as people made their way through one of America’s treasures. The hotels and campgrounds in and around the park were packed – it was a great summer, local folks would tell you.
Sure enough, there’s only on thing that’s threatening this great piece of Americana – snowmobiles. Just look at the numbers.

Last winter, fewer than 33,000 snowmobiles entered the park over a four-month period (all numbers in this piece are from the National Park Service). Those snowmobiles were required to stay on the trail – a singular ribbon that takes visitors to and from Old Faithful. In fact, snowmobiles are allowed on less than 1 percent of the 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park, and only on strictly enforced, guided tours traveling on best-available-technology snowmobiles.

Moreover, combining snowmobiles, automobiles, snow coaches and any other means of travel, Yellowstone had 86,793 visitors from December through March last winter, but from May through October, it’ll have more than 2.7 million visitors, and the total for all of 2008 was 3,066,580.

So, fewer than 3 percent of annual visitors enter in the four-month winter, and snowmobiles are the problem? During the summer, RVs, trucks, motorcycles, tour buses and passenger cars clog the roadways and fill the campgrounds. None of theses vehicles cause air pollution? None of these people litter?

In fact, we celebrate that many summer visitors in Yellowstone – press releases are written, newspapers rave about Americans getting back to nature, the talking heads gush. It’s as if each of those 900,000 July visitors were magically transported in vehicles that don’t require energy, none of the people ate, drank, had any bodily functions or encountered any animal. Instead, they somehow hovered above the park, and none saw each other – each person was on their own tiny island of peace and solitude.

Yet one-tenth of that number entered the park over a four-month period last winter, and just 3.7 percent visited on snowmobile. Stated another way, in July the average daily visitors was 29,048. Last winter, an average of 205 snowmobiles per day entered the park.

And snowmobiles are the problem?

A Salt Lake Tribune editorial stated, “scientific research clearly indicates that snowmobiles … don’t mix well with wildlife and the quiet, pristine air and natural wonders that national parks are created to protect.” The Denver Post editors hoped further snowmobile restrictions or a ban can help restore “peace at one of America’s most special places.”

Quiet? Pristine? Peace? With 900,000 visitors in one month?

It’s time to stop the villianization of snowmobiles and snowmobilers. We cannot celebrate huge July attendance for Yellowstone while we decry a microfraction of that number making highly restricted visits on vehicles that get better fuel mileage than the RVs and SUVs that pack the park in the summer.

Yellowstone does not have a snowmobile problem – it has a perception problem, and the mainstream media is perpetuating a myth.

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