To the often asked question "Is it or isn't it?" the response has been and is "It is." Yellowstone National Park is open in the winter to snowmobile use.
The gates have never been closed, albeit for a few minutes when the park officially opened in December of 2003 and a tug-of-war ensued between those who wanted the park open and a federal judge, which ended with the park opening.
"Still," said Jerry Johnston, owner of Yellowstone Adventures and former mayor of West Yellowstone, Mont, "people come here and are shocked to learn they can snowmobile into the park. There has been a lot of confusion in recent years."
The park is, in fact, open to winter travel via snowmobile, snowcoach or cross country skis. Restrictions have been placed on snowmobiles in response to complaints over noise and emissions.
Under current requirements, machines must fall under the classification "BAT" or best available technology, meaning they must come with quieter four-stroke engines as opposed to two-stroke, and must meet higher emissions standards.
Even there, said Johnston, there is some confusion.
"The Park Service has said owners can ride their own four-stoke snowmobiles, but not all fall under the BAT classification. What happens is we have to tell owners they can't take that particular machine into the park and, for some, they can't understand why."
All those going into the park must also be accompanied by a guide.
Here, said Clyde Seely, owner of Three Bears Lodge, there is little resistance.
"People pretty much understand and, in fact, find their in-park experience more enjoyable with a guide. They learn a lot about the geology and the biology of the park that they didn't know or were unaware of. Oh, you still get a few who tell us they've been into the park before and know everything, but many of those people come back and tell us how much they enjoy the ride. We get very few complaints."
Here, too, said Johnston, "Many people have told me all they did before was ride into the park and paid little attentions to what was around them. Now they actually take the time to look around and see things they've never seen before.
"Most of my guides grew up in West Yellowstone. They know the area and the history."
For this season and the 2007-08 season the park will operate under actions taken by Congress. An Interior appropriations bill signed in 2005 had a rider that kept in place the authorized use of up to 720 snowmobiles per day into the park and barred the federal courts from intervening.
It also allows for roads inside the park to be groomed on a regular basis but not plowed.
Seely said visitation is up this year, "but people are still reluctant to visit the park in the winter. There are still those who think the park is closed."
At this point, a final decision on the future of winter use inside Yellowstone is expected sometime before the start of the 2007 season
There is still a number of groups fighting to close the park in the winter to everything but snowcoach and ski traffic.
Snowmobiles, however, remain the most popular means of transportation into the park. Both Seely and Johnston said the snowcoach business is building, due in part to restrictions on snowmobile use. They also point out that the snowcoaches used today have little resemblance to the cramped coaches of old.
New coaches are comfortable, roomy and have wide viewing areas for passengers.
The most popular route into the park is from West Yellowstone into Madison Junction, then south to Old Faithful, said Stacy Vallie, park spokesperson for the NPS.
This year 400 snowmobiles, all approved for sound and emissions by the National Park Service, can enter into the park daily from the west entrance. The remaining 320 are spread between the other three entrances. Nearly 30 snowcoaches and over-the-snow vehicles with the capacity to hold 10 to 25 passengers also have daily access through West Yellowstone.
According to park counts, the number of visitors entering the park in December was up nearly 10 percent 6,049 to 5,507 in 2005. The same report showed snowcoach riders dropped from 4,266 to 4,106.
Vallie also noted that the visitors center at Old Faithful is being razed and will be replaced by a new center, "that is much larger, much nicer and will be a state of the art facility with interactive features."
Gas, food and lodging services are all available at Old Faithful and Mammoth locations.
As for current park conditions, snow totals are below average, but all of the roads into the park have more than sufficient coverage and are continuously being groomed.
And the park's full-time residents have taken up their usual winter locations. Geese, ducks, eagles and swans have staked out spots on the rivers, while buffalo, elk, coyotes and the occasional wolf can be seen from roadside vantage points.
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