Spring plowers bring may flowers at Yellowstone National Park

With oversnow travel ending in Yellowstone National Park this week, National Park Service maintenance crews will be out in force as begin clearing roads. As

The park's interior roads will reopen to automobile travel between mid-April and the end of May.  On Friday, April 16, the roads from Yellowstone’s North and West Entrances to Norris, Madison, Canyon and Old Faithful, open to visitors.

The east entrance roads will reopen on Friday, May 7 and from the South Entrance on Friday, May 14. The Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge, Montana, and the road between Tower Fall and Canyon over Dunraven Pass should open by the Friday before the Memorial Day Holiday weekend, weather permitting.

As the plows clear the road, many park visitors have been wondering if it might not be such a bad idea to plow more of the park during the winter. Winter use plans over the past decade have been nothing short of a quagmire of confusion and discontent and playing the roads, specifically on the west side of the park, could address the concerns of many stakeholders in winter visitation.

Unless snow machine manufactures are hiding their zero-emission, noise-free sleds, I think its fair to assume that the days of snow machines in Yellowstone are numbered. Their demise will severely impact  the West Yellowstone community, which like the park, has provided reasonably-priced lodging and dining for millions of park visitor. It'll also impact the visitor, who will likely face significantly higher costs for all these amenities should winter access cease to exist. Business owners will need to generate more revenue in a shorter period of time and as a result will likely increase prices—from rooms to menu items to souvenirs and outdoor equipment. The visitor experience will also be affected, as families are forced to leave a community that can't put enough children in local schools. They'll be replaced by transient workers that have no stake in maintaining the community and looking only for the next job.

Plowing roads on Yellowstone’s west side during the winter season is a viable solution to winter access in the park and would allow personal and public transportation by wheeled vehicles between West Yellowstone and Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, and West Yellowstone and Old Faithful. Not only would it offer easier access, it would also be less expensive.

According to Doug Edgerton, a manufacturer of grooming equipment, most snowmobile trail groomers cost around $300,000 and cost $100 a mile to operate. They travel at a speed of 8 mph. By contrast, snow plows costs around $100,000, and operating costs are approximately $2 a mile. More importantly, they travels at a speed of 30 mph, which allow them to be cleared more quickly. Edgerton also points out that Snowmobile trails, including the snow-covered roads in Yellowstone, have to be groomed daily, while roads only need plowing when it snows.

A more common argument, that winter traffic negatively affects wildlife, may also be specious.The road between Gardiner and Cooke City is always open to wheeled vehicles and passes through prime wildlife habitat. It's one of the locations where the Yellowstone Institute offers wildlife watching tours in the winter and one of the best places to see wolves in the winter. While the road is plowed because it is the only way that residents of Cooke City can get to "civilization" during the winter (the beartooth highway is impassable), it also demonstrates that traffic doesn't affect animal health, even in the depths of winter.

While the notion of plowing has been batted around for decades, residents of "the snowmobile capital of the world" are beginning to embrace the idea like never before. In fact, many die-hard snowmobile supporters are willing sacrifice their support of over snow access if they were given assurances that the park would begin plowing roads on the west side of the park. And that may not be such a bad thing. Not only would wheeled-access support the West Yellowstone community as a whole, but it would also make the park more accessible to snowshoers, cross-country skiers and other non-motorized recreaterss who have not been able to visit the park because its been to expensive. Traffic will no doubt increase, however, it's unlikely they'll generate noise nearly as loud as snowmobiles or the old bombardier snow coaches that ply the park roads.

Recently the park began public scoping for a long-term winter use plan and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)  which is designed to manage winter visitation so that park visitors have a range of “appropriate winter opportunities in a suitable setting that they do not impair or irreparably harm park resources or values.”

Scoping is an opportunity early in the planning and EIS process for the public, organizations, and other agencies to suggest issues and alternatives that NPS planners could consider. The EIS will consider many options for winter use, including snowmobiles, snowcoaches, and wheeled vehicles. The EIS will evaluate the environmental effects of winter use on air quality and visibility, wildlife, natural soundscapes, employee and visitor health and safety, visitor experience, and socioeconomics.

Plowing has also been offered as a winter use alternative in the National Park Service winter plan proposals and it may be considered as planners develop what many hope will become a permanent winter plan.

You can submit your comments until March 30, 2010 at parkplanning.nps.gov/yell or mailed to Winter Use Scoping, Yellowstone National Park, P. O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 82190.

Learn more about plowing the park at www.plowyellowstone.org.