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Meeting touches on the future of winter use in Yellowstone - West Yellowstone News Online: News

Meeting touches on the future of winter use in Yellowstone

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Posted: Friday, February 24, 2012 11:38 am

The National Park Service held a series of public scoping meetings last week as they begin work on a Supplemental Winter Use Plan/Environmental Impact Statement.

The process started in order to make a long-term decision regarding motorized winter use in Yellowstone National Park.

With West Yellowstone acting as the gateway community via the West Entrance, many snowmobile and snowcoach operators, guides and citizens showed up to the meeting held in West Yellowstone last Wednesday.

Upwards of 70 people gathered at the Holiday Inn conference center to discuss the Supplemental EIS and new alternatives presented by the NPS.

Locals from Backcountry Adventures, Randy Roberson, of Yellowstone Vacations, staffers from Two Top Snowmobile Rentals, Clyde Seely, of See Yellowstone and Three Bear Lodge and Jason and Bill Howell, of Yellowstone Arctic Yamaha, were just a few familiar faces in attendance from the snowmobile and snowcoach communities.

The formal 30-day public scoping period began on Feb. 8 and runs through March 9, 2012.

The NPS is seeking comments regarding the Supplemental EIS, including the purpose, need and objectives, the preliminary range of draft alternatives and issues to be addressed.

Dave Jacob, who is acting as the project manager for the Supplemental EIS and is also a NEPA technical specialist with the NPS environmental quality division, based in Denver, ran through an introductory presentation with the public last week.

He explained that after months of public review and comment on the Draft EIS, released in May 2011, there were questions and concerns that still needed to be addressed.

And, according to the NPS, after the end of the current winter use season on March 15, less than a month away, no motorized oversnow vehicle use can be allowed in the park unless a new regulation is issued. The NPS is continuing on with a scheduled plan for the completion of a Final EIS and formal adoption and implementation to have it ready by the fall.

Objectives of the 2011 Final EIS, including visitor use and protection of natural resources, like wildlife and air quality, remain the same.

Alternative 5 and Alternative 6 were added to the list of draft alternatives to consider in the Supplemental EIS.

The alternatives address sound concerns that the NPS was told they needed to improve when a permanent EIS was last attempted in 2007.

The alternatives address sound event limits, with a "sound event" initially equaling one snowcoach or one group of snowmobiles, with an average of up to seven snowmobiles, but not to exceed 10 in one group, as outlined in Alternative 5. Furthermore, snowmobile and snowcoach numbers, including snowmobile group size, could change over time through adaptive management and improvements in Best Available Technology machines.

"Maybe they aren't the right answers, but they can give you new alternatives (to look at)," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said.

He wanted people at the meeting to consider the new alternatives dealing with sound.

"If we're really talking about addressing impacts, should we as the National Park Service, necessarily care how you get in? Let's look at how many group entries there are and talk about selling some kind of sound limit," Nash said. "If technology improves and manufacturers make quieter snowmobiles, maybe it can be eight, or nine or 10 (machines in a group)."

Reaching a decision that will satisfy everyone's needs has also proved to be a difficult part of the ongoing winter use process.

"We're not going to make the whole population happy. We need to make a sustainable decision that will hold up in the courts, if someone challenges that decision," Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said.

Some meeting goers openly expressed their concerns with the exact definition of a sound event and the impact it could have on winter use.

"We're talking about animals, sound. We're not talking about the people that live here," Regina Caligiuri said. "I care about the animals, but I care more about feeding my family."

A list of 16 people signed up to speak during the public comment period and each speaker was limited to three minutes.

Others openly supported the idea to plow park roads and open up winter access to everyone.

A busload of visitors from the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs signed up to make comments about their experiences visiting West Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park. They each commented that they enjoy it much more in the winter months.

Seely focused more on the economy and winter use in the long-term.

"This winter sucks. The economy sucks and the wellbeing of this town is being sucked away," he said. "There are two extremes for the total snowmobile and snowcoach numbers in regards to the alternatives dealing with sound events. They are too extreme."

He believes that it's not realistic for businesses to operate both snowmobiles and snowcoaches, especially when the future of winter use remains unclear and the high costs of real estate in West Yellowstone.

John Gerlach, who guides photo tours all over the world and in Yellowstone, has enjoyed guiding snowcoaches and snowmobiles for years.

"I do it for fun," Gerlach said. "What I'm worried about is the American public not being allowed to see the first national park. Right now the park is being underutilized. Let's work together and lets try to keep the park open for citizens."

Despite the many concerned people in attendance, humor still managed to find its way into the meeting.

"I hope I was somewhat diplomatic because I promised by wife I would be," Gerlach said.

Several locals also thanked the members of the AWSC for showing their support and that they indeed like Wisconsin and the visitors that come to West Yellowstone.

NPS wanted to address a number of public comments and questions at the scoping meetings held in Cody and Jackson, Wyo., West Yellowstone and Bozeman last week.

West Yellowstone residents expressed concerns about job security and the already limited accessibility to the park during the winter season.

The NPS had a proposal and a preferred alternative at the meetings in June and at this time that doesn't exist with the Supplemental EIS.

"I want to make clear we do not have a proposal out," Jacob said.

Under the National Environmental Impact Policy Act, which is a legal requirement for federal agencies, a winter use plan is needed because a special regulation is required to allow snowmobiles or snowcoaches in Yellowstone.

NPS officials focused more attention on explaining sound concerns as the meeting progressed.

"As you see, our alternatives deal with sound," Jacob said. "So, really, we need to make a long-term decision for winter use in the park."

More than 59,000 comments were received on the 2011 draft EIS and the NPS is aiming to have similar numbers of entrance caps under the winter use plan. Currently, up to 318 commercially guided, Best Available Technology snowmobiles and up to 78 commercially guided snowcoaches are being allowed into the park per day.

David McCray, of Two Top Snowmobile Rentals, commented that, from his research, he guessed the park has been open on Christmas except on two occasions. Only wheeled and rubber-tracked vehicles were allowed to travel in Yellowstone at the start of the season, until Dec. 31, 2011, due to lack of snow.

With NEPA in place, a lot of parks are historically closed in the winter, but Yellowstone was open and unregulated in previous years, according to NPS information.

Jacob again encouraged people to submit their comments about winter use and the Supplemental EIS at the conclusion of the meeting.

The National Park Service is not accepting bulk comments, so large groups can have people submit the same comment separately in order for it to be considered.

All comments must be submitted by March 9. For more information, visit http://parkplanning.nps.gov/yell and click on the link to the 2012 Supplemental Winter Use Plan EIS. Written comments can be mailed to: Yellowstone National Park, Supplemental Winter Use Plan EIS, PO Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

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