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West Yellowstone bracing for life without snowmobiles

Residents fear town will shut down in winter

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — Winters were hard here in the days before snowmobiles.

Aside from a few who taught school, the only three full-time occupations in the winter months were drinking, playing cards and poaching.

There were two service stations and a restaurant open for truckers. The rest of West Yellowstone went into hibernation. One grocery store opened two days a week.

"Everyone knew the day fresh produce came. People would line up to be first. The rest of the week there was nothing," said Tim Daley, who owns Gusher Pizza and counts himself among the few native West Yellowstonians left in town.

"I remember, it wasn't pretty. Unemployment was nearly 100 percent. There were no jobs. People poached to put food on the table."

This was hard on a city that during warm months of the year had hundreds of thousands of people walking the streets, buying ceramic bears and picture postcards of Old Faithful and patronizing local motels. After all, West Yellowstone has one of the scenic wonders of the world, Yellowstone National Park, as a next-door neighbor.

But when the weather turned cold, people stopped coming and the town shut down.

The introduction of snowmobiles 30 years ago changed all that, almost overnight. West Yellowstone came alive in the winter, and so did the people, remembered Daley.

Then last year park officials shocked the small Montana community by announcing that by 2003, snowmobiles would be banned from Yellowstone. With little warning, they said snowcoaches would replace snowmobiles.

The National Park Service said snowmobile use in winter causes unacceptable levels of noise and pollution and concerns over safety of snowmobilers and harassment of wildlife. Months earlier they released a list of possible solutions, ranging from the status quo to a ban on snowmobiles.

"We were surprised and disappointed. We were expecting for some middle ground, sort of a win-win. Instead it was the park wins and everyone else loses," said Clyde Seely, who is in the lodging/rental business. "We weren't ready for this."

Bob Seibert, west district ranger for the NPS, said park officials realize there will be hardships.

Townsfolk said the NPS has no idea how hard times will get.

"And if it doesn't work? And the town is devastated? Then what?" said Bill Howell, also local businessman. "The (National Park Service) has done no market research on this. They have no backup plan. We're on our own and if we go under — tough."

"No, we don't have a backup plan," Seibert said. "We think it will work. And if it doesn't, then we'll go back and take another look at it."

Snowmobiles vs 'coaches

The Park Service says snowcoaches can solve all of the major problems because visitors will be chauffeured around the park. And, said Marsha Karle, an NPS spokeswoman, "There is an untapped market out there of people waiting for snowmobiles to leave so they can come and enjoy the park by snowcoach."

The residents of West Yellowstone counter that the visitor pool has been tapped and is nearly dry; when snowmobiles disappear, the "bad old days" could reappear. Residents fear that if the enclosed coaches fail, any attempt at recovery would be too little, too late.

A random check of 20 people visiting inside the park this past winter produced only one person who "might" come back for a snowcoach experience.

John Cortelyon of Houston said he brought his family to Yellowstone, "before the park closes. We were here in the summer to see the buffalo. We didn't see a single animal. We saw lots of elk, but no buffalo. Today we've seen hundreds of buffalo. I wanted my family to see it before they 'close' the park."

Safety for animals, people

Park officials cite safety of both visitors and wildlife as one of their major concerns. In the past 10 years, there have been eight recorded deaths involving snowmobiles.

The impact on overwintering buffalo is another concern. Snowmobilers routinely encounter winter-stressed bison along the park's groomed roads, "resulting in some losses," Seibert said.

Area residents said those claims are exaggerated. Daley said he drove a snowcoach for 13 years, "and buffalo virtually ignored coaches and snowmobiles. It's been proven that cross-country skiers, with their waving arms, appear more threatening and cause buffalo to move more than snowmobiles." For several years, park officials said the groomed roads were responsible for the ballooning bison population because the animals are able to move about with much less stress on the packed snow.

In Yellowstone, where thousands of machines encounter bison on the groomed road each year, buffalo/snowmobiler encounters are rare.

Seibert said he has been "surprised there are not more." The only death involved a snowmobiler hitting a buffalo while driving at night. Next year the park will be closed to night riding.

Residents say these are enforcement issues, and it is the responsibility of the park officers to monitor and cite problem snowmobilers. Karle said there are not enough officers to patrol and not enough funding to hire more officers.

Too little, too late?

Pollution and noise from snowmobile engines have long been two of the most debated arguments. Residents argue that the problem has been exaggerated. Pollution figures released in 1998 by the NPS were later said to be inflated and were eventually changed.

Residents point to a number of steps taken to reduce pollution, including pre-selling park entrance passes to stop bottlenecking at the entrance and the recent introduction of snowmobiles with a cleaner-burning four-stroke engine.

Karle said it is all "too little, too late."

Counters Daley, "They have the control at the gate. If a snowmobile is smoking too much or is too loud, they can stop it from entering the park."

Some residents say many letters and phone calls from them to Mike Finley, Yellowstone's superintendent, to discuss park issues, including parking, pollution and enforcement problems, have gone unanswered this season.

Whatever happens, residents of this gateway community feel most will survive — "We've got to, we've got too much invested," said Seely — but that it will be done at great cost to the community and to visitors. What troubles them most, however, is that the trust they had in the park has been irreparably damaged.

And if snowcoaches turn out not to be the answer, as park officials surmise, they fear that any attempt to revive the community will be too late.

"Then what do they tell those people who lost their homes and businesses?" Seely said. " 'Oops, sorry'?"

More than anything, though, townspeople feel duped by the park service.