Great news from Yellowstone, the crown jewel of our national
parks! The rangers working at the west entrance of the park and
patrolling the 30-mile corridor to the Old Faithful geyser are
experiencing less nausea and fewer headaches from snowmobile
Is this because snowmobiles are gradually being phased out of
the park, as the U.S. government indicated two years ago that
they should be?
Hell, no. That phaseout is itself in the process of being phased
out by the Bush Administration. Yellowstone's rangers are
enjoying better health because they've taken to wearing gas
masks on the job. The masks may look funny--"They're the same
kind you see on, say, the guy in the auto body shop who's
painting your car," park ranger Alex Moldenhauer says--but they
greatly reduce the intake of dangerous levels of benzene,
formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and particulates spewed by
The idea of respirators on rangers in our oldest national park
may seem ludicrous, but to Bush & Co. it's a small price to pay
to please their friends at the International Snowmobile
Manufacturers Association, who insist that it's their right to
recreate however they wish. In apparent agreement is Bush, one of
whose first acts as President was to overturn a Clinton
Administration plan to phase snowmobiles out of national parks by
the winter of 2003-04. The Department of the Interior is now
considering three alternatives to the ban, two of which allow for
snowmobiling in Yellowstone.
The environmental impact statement on which the original ban was
based "was one of the most exhaustive scientific impact
statements ever conducted," says Sean Smith, a former
Yellowstone ranger now working for the Bluewater Network, an
environmental nonprofit group. That report, which was issued by
the National Park Service and was five years in the making,
concluded that between the pollution and the noise they
generate, and the wildlife they harass and displace, snowmobiles
don't belong in national parks. The decision to stop their use
also took into account hundreds of thousands of public comments,
the overwhelming majority of which were in favor of a snowmobile
Not that you need a three-volume document to arrive at the
conclusion that hundreds (on some days, thousands) of
ear-splitting, blue-smoke-belching machines might not be a great
match for the bald eagles, bison, wolves, elk and trumpeter swans
wintering in Yellowstone. "On crowded days, with snowmobilers
riding four and five abreast, jockeying for position," says
Smith, "Yellowstone has the look, and smell, of a NASCAR race."
While the majority of snowmobilers in Yellowstone are
law-abiding, some aren't. Ranger Todd Seliga recently cited one
yahoo who illegally went off-trail and took his machine right
through a thermal area with springs and geysers. "I couldn't
believe it," says Seliga. "I mean, who would do something like
The people hurt by a ban would not be snowmobilers--who can ply
their machines over the 350 miles of groomed trails in the
national forests just outside Yellowstone--so much as the people
who rent to them. David McCray runs Two Top Snowmobile Rentals
in West Yellowstone. His family has been renting snowmobiles
since the '60s. "The air quality issue has been extremely
overstated," says McCray, pointing to a generation of "cleaner
and quieter" snowmobiles now becoming available. Critics counter
that those machines are neither clean nor quiet enough. And what
about all that great snowmobiling outside the park?
"We talk till we're blue in the face telling [clients] it's
great outside the park," says McCray, "but that's not why
they're here. People want to be in Yellowstone." Let people
adapt, in that case, just as the bison and the elk have had to
adapt to cacophonous contraptions in their habitat. But that's
not what McCray wants to hear. If a snowmobile ban is enacted,
he says, "This town will fold like a house of cards."
Snowmobilers accuse gas-mask-clad rangers of "grandstanding."
Really? Before he started using a respirator, says Seliga, "it
would be rare that I would go home without a headache or some
signs of dizziness. Now I have the energy to go backpacking or
Backpacks? Cross-country skis? Where do you put the gas in
The next SI ADVENTURE will appear in the April 29 issue.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG VON DOERSTEN Fuming The pro-snowmobile faction has accused the gas-masked park rangers of grandstanding.
"On crowded days," says Smith, "Yellowstone has the look, and
smell, of a NASCAR race."