Like Oil and Water: Snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park

Hoping to snowshoe undisturbed in Yellowstone this winter? For those snowshoers and other winter sports enthusiasts who enjoy doing their sports in Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks, it appears that this year will again be a winter filled with the noise and pollution that come from too many in snowmobiles in such small, beautiful wilderness areas.

On Friday, Oct. 15, a federal judge overturned a ban on snowmobiles in both parks, leaving them open to the continued onslaught against wildlife and clean air for the next three years at least. The judge who made the ruling, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, contended that the ban, instated during the Clinton era, had failed to adequately allow participation by the public, especially those in Montana and Wyoming.

As a result of his decision, the National Park Service is already trying to create a plan, which would allow up to 720 snowmobiles daily in Yellowstone and up to 140 snowmobiles in Grand Teton. While certain people such as the governor of Wyoming, the Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and snowmobile owners are happy about the judge’s decision, those interested in protecting the parks’ wildlife, pristine beauty, and the environment are clearly not pleased with this latest in the ongoing battle. Several conservation groups are currently determining what legal actions they can take to change things as they now stand.

The Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA), a group who supports winter wildland conservationists and those who participate in non-motorized winter sports, has been a huge advocate in the fight against continued and extreme snowmobile use in these parks. When Judge Brimmer first issued a temporary restraining order against the pending ban in February 2004, more than 100 winter sports enthusiasts lined up outside Yellowstone’s west gate, an entryway for hundreds of snowmobilers, to protest the restraining order.

Many protest that allowing fewer snowmobiles into these parks or banning them completely will drastically reduce the income from tourism that these people bring into the area annually. The WWA and other conservationist groups believe that, by working together with local merchants, residents and governments, these areas of Montana and Wyoming will see an increase in tourism dollars brought in as more and more skiers, snowshoers, snowboarders, and the like return to the parks after they have been made safer, quieter and cleaner without excess snowmobiles.

The WWA has even proposed increasing public education on the many different recreation activities found in the area and modernizing the Yellowstone snowcoaches. Furthermore, snowmobilers will still be allowed access to the more than one thousand miles of trails located just outside the parks as well as almost 130,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails found throughout North America. Compared to the 180 miles of trails found in Yellowstone, that difference makes the entire battle seem insignificant at best.

Under the Clinton Administration, then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit sought to ban snowmobiling not only from the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks but also from other parks located within the lower 48 states on the contention that most snowmobiles violate environmental laws. However, as soon as George W. Bush took office, one of his first environmental actions was to impose a moratorium on the ban. Since then, he has continued his fight to bury any ban against the machines and allow their use within all national parks.

The list of problems involving snowmobiles in these parks are long and include such issues as increased noise levels and air pollution, a disruption of wildlife behaviors during an already stressful winter period, employee reports of illnesses from snowmobile exhaust, and reckless driving on the part of numerous snowmobile operators. In addition to this, snowmobiles effectively erase any peace and solitude, which could otherwise be found by snowshoers, skiers, and others desiring to enjoy the park wilderness.

This battle has been a long one and looks to be far from over. With Judge Brimmer’s latest ruling, conservation groups and others concerned about the future of our environment and winter wilderness areas are now trying to determine the next step to be taken. For future updates on where the issue stands, please visit the Winter Wildlands Alliance at or the Sierra Club at


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Alyssa Skye Collins

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