Snowmobiles Polluting Yellowstone National Park

Some 130 years ago, Congress set up the National Park System and named an obscure corner of the West, "Yellowstone National Park."

The park, which straddles Montana and Wyoming, is home to Old Faithful geyser, wolves, elk, and antelope. Sitting atop a volcanic field, steam rises from vent holes adding to the beauty of the park.

But in the wintertime, exhaust from snowmobiles and the high-pitched whine of their two-stroke engines threaten the solitude. Herds of buffalo have been run off park roadways by bands of the machines.

"America's losing something here," said Jon Catton of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "Visitors are leaving Yellowstone in the wintertime with headaches from breathing snowmobile exhaust and they're unable to hear the hiss and splash of Old Faithful through this Indy 500 roar," he added.

After five years of study and four rounds of public hearings, the Clinton administration proposed a ban on snowmobiles in the park. The 80,000 snowmobile visits every winter were to be phased out over a few years. But on the day he was sworn into office, President Bush imposed a moratorium on the ban.

This winter, the Park Service was ordered to come up with alternatives that would allow the machines continued access to Yellowstone. Still, the rangers whose job it is to protect America's first national park insist nothing short of a ban will work.

"This place needs to be protected whatever it takes," said ranger Rick Bennett.

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The mayor of West Yellowstone, Jerry Johnson, says a ban would have a negative impact on the resort town. "It would devastate this town," he said.

West Yellowstone is home to a dozen snowmobile rental shops and upwards of 12,000 hotel beds. "We don't need a ban on snowmobiles, we need to have quieter, cleaner snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park," said Johnson.

A new four-stroke engine snowmobile is being marketed by Snowcat and it is considerably less noisy. It also produces less pollution. But because the machines are more expensive than the traditional two-stroke models, renting them has not been easy.

"I have to charge at least 4 more dollars a day for the four-strokes," said the mayor, who also operates a snowmobile rental shop. "And nobody wants to spend that extra money."

The new snowmobiles are also less powerful, and that too has affected their popularity.

Another round of public hearings has been ordered in part to gauge the impact of the cleaner, quieter machines. In the past, public sentiment has largely been against allowing snowmobiles in the park.

Snow coaches, which can carry several people and are less menacing than snowmobiles have been suggested as an alternative. But they have limited appeal to those who want the freedom and exhilaration that come from riding a snowmobile.

"A compromise must be reached so that we can continue to ride," said one woman. As she tried to explain, her voice was drowned out by snowmobiles racing through the street.