Yellowstone National Park is open to snowmobiles this winter, and to snowcoaches and cross country skiers and snowshoers.

There is, however, still some confusion on whether or not the park is really open to snowmobile travel, a result of what can be called the "dueling judges."

As with other destination vacation spots this year, business is down in West Yellowstone. Numbers range anywhere from 20 to 30 percent at the West Entrance and 10 to 15 percent through the South Entrance via Jackson Hole, Wyo.

According to Clyde Seely, a partner in the Three Bears Lodge in West Yellowstone, snow conditions both inside and outside the park are good.

"There's plenty of opportunity. Everything is wide open and with fewer people this year, snow conditions are great. This is also a time when there are some very good end-of-season rates," he said.

Latest snow reports show there is a 22-inch base at Madison Junction, a 28-inch base at Old Faithful and a 36-inch base at the Canyons. Outside the park all the trails leading to play areas are being groomed.

And, all roads into the park at the four entrances — North, West, South and East — are continuously being groomed.

Travel inside the park is under rules similar to those followed over the past four years.

The main requirement is that all snowmobiles entering the park be designated "BAT" or having the best available technology, which means they must be under the power of four-stroke engines. This means owners can go in on their own machines if they are BAT or rent machines.

Also, all trips inside the park must be with a certified guide.

The one road open to wheeled vehicles runs between Gardiner, Mont., and Silver Gate and Cooke City, Mont., at the northern tip of the park.

The park opened in mid-December under what Jack Welch with the BlueRibbon Coalition, admitted was "some confusion."

Much of the confusion is a result of a battle between two judges — District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne, Wyo., and District Judge Emmett Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The National Park Service concluded a three-year study on snowmobile and snowcoach use in the winter and came up with a rule that would have allowed a maximum of 540 BAT snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches into the park each day.

This past September, Sullivan, whose decisions over the past decade have leaned toward the elimination of snowmobiles in the park, vacated the park's Winter Use Rule.

This decision came in spite of a 2007 environmental study that found that in certain locations within the park where there were violations of noise and pollution standards that it was most often the snowcoaches that were in violation, and that snowmobiles, on a per-person basis, were more fuel efficient.

Snowcoaches are the vehicle of choice by those groups trying to get snowmobiles out of the park, which includes the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Wilderness Society.

In his decision, Sullivan did not replace the vacated rule, which left in question whether snowmobiles would be allowed and ignored the long history of the NPS to reach a balance between users and environmentalists. It also banned snowcoaches, which are being pushed by environmental groups.

Brimmer said Sullivan was wrong. He said the NPS, "Thoroughly reviewed and investigated the effects of the final rule on the environment" within the park.

He said he couldn't revoke Sullivan's decision, but he did order the agency to fall back to a 2004 decision that allowed for 720 snowmobiles per day, which is a much higher number than the various snowmobile groups had been willing to accept.

And that, Welch said, "is where we are today."

Bill Wade, executive council for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which has been involved in the snowmobile issue, but not in the litigation, said, "Our position, to put it as bluntly as we can, is we would like to see all snowmobiles phased out over the next few years" in favor of snowcoaches.

He said the his group's position is the NPS did not need to return to the 720 figure, "and what we're hoping is the department will consider dropping to 318 next winter."

Seely said banning snowmobiles is "crazy."

"The way the park is being run, with the controls in place, and the lower number of people allowed in the park, it's crazy to say snowmobiles are not appropriate. Visitors and the community are being hurt now because of the uncertainty caused by Sullivan's ruling. Because he banned snowcoaches in his ruling, I'm really not sure he knew what he was doing," he said.

Welch said snowmobile groups had more or less settled on a number of 540, "and we thought we had an agreement. The rules the environmental groups want are way over the top and could result in Boy Scouts being banned from the park if they were to, say, disturb a pile of rocks.

"Brimmer's decision calls for the number to be fixed for three years while the (National Park Service) completes a new process and comes up with a new rule. Going back to the 2004 figures and calling for a new study will at least give businesses and visitors some certainty in what has become a very confusing situation."

Consensus is that if a compromise isn't brokered between the two sides, this matter will remain in the courts for years, which could prove very costly for both sides.

The park will remain open this year until March 15, which is a week longer than in past seasons.

This will mean the park will be open for the annual West Yellowstone World Snowmobile Expo, scheduled March 13-15. Events will include an ATV show, a snowcross, drag race and aerial competition.

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