Idling at the gate 

Snowmobilers hoping to throttle into Yellowstone National Park’s geothermal wonderland on its official winter opening day were instead left idling at the gates.

The Dec. 15 obstacle wasn’t the ongoing legal battle between greens and slednecks, nor were sledders left in the cold because of frigid temperatures.

Instead, sleds were banned because of a lack of snow, says Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash, who notes the non-opening opener isn’t unusual.

“We tend to struggle with a light snowpack at the start of most winter seasons,” he says.

While a lack of snowpack temporarily prevents even the so-called “best available technology” sleds from motoring onto the iconic plateau, a back-and-forth in state and federal courts has left local snowmobile outfitters in a more challenging and longer-term struggle. In just the past three months judges have thrice changed the cap on the number of snowmobiles allowed in the park.

“We’ve heard consistently from our [gateway] communities that they need something sustainable, a decision they can count on and their clients can count on,” says Nash. “Uncertainty is very difficult for them.”

It’s also tough on park employees. Until late November, park staff had planned around having 318 sledders per day, but a Bush administration rule change last week allows up to 720 sleds daily. The park’s four-year average is fewer than 300 per day.

Regardless of the cap, Nash says the Bush ruling will have much less of an effect on the actual numbers of sledders than it does on local outfitters trying to operate amid constantly changing quotas.

“This is frustrating for everyone interested in this issue,” says Nash. “Its very challenging for our visitors and very challenging for communities. And it’s especially challenging for the [park] staff, because everyone puts work and effort into what we think we’re going to do, and then on fairly short notice, things change.”

Count Nash among those eager for a long-term and sustainable plan. “We hope to have some direction, and to begin working toward whatever that is, by early next year.”
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