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Resorts adjust to park ruling

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CODY, Wyo. — Each of the past 29 winters, Pahaska Tepee lodge has opened for snowmobilers eager to take a ride into Yellowstone National Park.

But in the two weeks since a federal judge ruled against the Bush administration's new snowmobile plan and imposed a Bill Clinton-era phaseout, lodge owner Bob Coe has had second thoughts about keeping his business open through the winter.

"It's just put a chill on the entire business," he said Wednesday.

Profit margins in the winter have always been tight, he said, but the restrictions this season have made it especially hard for his business near the east entrance to stay open and break even, much less carve a profit.

"Business is down 65 to 75 percent," he said, adding that a decision will be made Monday whether to keep the lodge open for the rest of the winter.

The number of snowmobiles heading into Yellowstone is down across the park. In some cases, such as at the south entrance, the decrease is closely tied to the daily cap of 90 machines allowed through that gate.

But at the entrance near West Yellowstone, Mont., the number of snowmobiles has not regularly pushed the daily cap of 278.

According to statistics provided by park officials, the average number of snowmobiles coming in each day between Dec. 21 and 28 was 291, far below the daily cap of 493 imposed by the court ruling.

At the west entrance, the busiest gate during the winter, the highest daily total was 263 on Dec. 29, still below the daily limit of 278.

"Things could certainly change, but we haven't hit the (daily) allotments," said Stacy Valle, a Park Service spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, nearly 2,000 people rode 256 snowcoaches into the park between Dec. 21 and 28.

In the future, snowcoaches may be the only motorized means of travel for winter visitors to Yellowstone, depending on final resolution of the court case. The state of Wyoming and snowmobile manufacturers have appealed Judge Emmet Sullivan's ruling, but it likely will be several months before a decision is issued.

If the judge's decision stands, 40 years of snowmobiling in Yellowstone would come to an end.

At West Yellowstone, the self-styled "snowmobile capital of the world," the week between Christmas and New Year's is usually a busy one, second only to Presidents Day weekend. But this holiday season, the town was quiet, said Marysue Costello, president of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

"On the street I live on, there's a motel," she said. "And usually on that street there would be a pickup truck and a snowmobile trailer, a pickup truck and a snowmobile trailer, a pickup truck and a snowmobile trailer, the whole length of the block, and the motel would be full.

"Now, they're just not there."

Costello said more people in town are starting to talk about other ways to market West Yellowstone in the winter, including an extra emphasis on the continuation of snowcoach service. The problem is that it takes time and money to conduct research and then go after that market, she said.

As for the drop-off in the number of snowmobiles coming through Yellowstone's west entrance, Costello cited a number of probable factors, including cancellations after the Sullivan decision, continued confusion, foul weather for travelers and good snow conditions that keep visitors enjoying winter recreation closer to home.

"We're not really seeing the Utah, Idaho and Wyoming plates," Costello said.

But at the south entrance, the snowmobile tour business has been brisk.

"I could be pushing 30 people a day into the park, no question," said Jeff Golightly, manager of Togwotee Snowmobile Adventures in Jackson. "Instead I'm capped at 12 guests, so that means for every one person I take in, I'm turning away one and a half people."

Coe, at Pahaska Tepee, said the snowmobile ban, so stridently debated for years, may simply be the picture of the future.

"I have little or no faith there are going to be big changes," he said.