From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 21 - August 21, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Yellowstone National Park
Environment vs. Economic: economic ignored?
by Kate Neely

Part One of Five: UW economist's research focuses on economic impacts of snowmobiling in park

By now, the news and issues regarding snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park may seem old, tired, clichι. Every individual's opinion of the controversy differs; some may hold no opinion at all. It's politics. But more than that, it's a fight between two crucial concepts, preservation and conservation.

Up until recently, the focus on the park's possible snowmobile ban has seemed to stick to environmental factors. The original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which was issued several years ago focused primarily on environmental consequences that resulted from snowmobiles in the park. Could such a significant, controversial document have failed to take economic impacts into consideration?

Chris Bastian is a specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service and the University of Wyoming's Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in agricultural and resource economics. The pursuit of his degree has taken him into the middle of the long-standing controversy regarding snowmobiles in the park.

Bastian has been conducting research toward his PhD to determine the potential economic impacts that snowmobilers and local communities surrounding Yellowstone National Park would experience if the park 1) closed its gates to snowmobiling; 2) capped or limited its number of visitors per year; and 3) placed restrictions on the types of snowmobiles that were allowed inside the park's boundaries.

Through his research, Bastian seeks to "estimate the economic impact on local communities surrounding the park and analyze the changes in benefits to snowmobilers," according to a press release issued by UW's cooperative extension service senior editor, Vicki Hamende.

The newest proposed policy changes regarding snowmobiles in the park mandates that 1) snowmobiles with two-stroke engines be banned from the park; 2) only snowmobiles with four-stroke engines, which are quieter and cleaner, be allowed in the park; 3) all snowmobilers in the park be accompanied by a designated guide; and 4) daily visitation be capped in the park. This latest proposal, a new supplemental EIS could take effect in December. The press release stated: "[u]nder the Clinton administration, the policy proposal centered around an outright ban of snowmobiles. Given more information and public input, the park service has changed its recommendations." It is, in a sense, a potential policy that embraces the idea of compromise.

As a part of his research regarding the project, Bastian read Yellowstone's original EIS, to learn just what was being proposed as changes for and in the park. While Bastian's research is primarily based on the contents of that original EIS and the possibility of all snowmobiles being banned from the park, he is still optimistic about the relevance of his research in light of the newest proposed mandates.

"I feel like my information is still real important," he said.

This is because his study examines issues from an economic standpoint. The original EIS focuses on the values that banning snowmobiles in the park would have for people. It pays little attention to the values such a ban would have economically.

"I felt that there were some areas in the original EIS that needed more research," Bastian said. "They really didn't ask the kind of questions that I thought were important to be associated with the [snowmobile] phase-out. Because of that, I don't think they could really adequately address what the impacts [of a phase-out] would be from a state level," Bastian said. "That's the piece I decided to carve out for my research - impacts [of park proposals] to snowmobiles and what would be a better way of looking at economic impacts," he said.

Through his research, Bastian decided he somehow wanted to estimate a demand system based on the yearly number of visitors who come to Yellowstone to snowmobile. He worked to develop a "random utility model" based on a travel-cost method that basically compares the number of trips demanded to the price of the trips. According to him, the model is a type of visual that simultaneously estimates a plethora of demand equations regarding people and snowmobiles.

Bastian gathered data for this model with the help of several others by conducting surveys and interviewing people at the park's entrances. He and his helpers handed out "trip diaries" to people who were willing to participate in his research, and participants were instructed to record all of the snowmobile trips they went on during the 76 days that Yellowstone was open for its winter season. Overall, Bastian and his research crew talked to about 1250 people over the course of 33 days; 1140 people agreed to participate in the survey.

At the end of the winter season, Bastian mailed another survey to each participant. Through this survey, Bastian hoped to discover what people's favorite snowmobiling sites were, whether or not people would increase or decrease the number of trips they took to the Yellowstone area if Yellowstone were closed to snowmobiles, how much people were willing to spend for a snowmobile excursion and how far people were willing to travel to go snowmobiling. By asking the types of questions he did in this survey, Bastian was seeking data to analyze non-market factors, factors that are not based on monetary value but that still create economic impacts, factors that are based on intangible value rather than a price tag.

Throughout the project, Bastian strove to obtain scientific, unbiased information.

"You want to try and be very neutral so you don't bias the information you get from people," he said.

Overall, Bastian received a 61-percent response rate from the mail surveys; out of the 1140 people who participated in the first survey, just over 700 responded to the mail survey. Based on the results he received, a total of 48 sites were named as favorite places to snowmobile, including Grand Teton National Park. All of the sites are located in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, the three states that surround Yellowstone.

Bastian compared each of the 48 sites against each other, taking into account the following for each site: miles of groomed trails and how often the trails were groomed, available services within short distances of the site's trailheads, and snow pack and snowfall during January, February and March. He also examined roads surrounding each site and analyzed the roads that were best for traveling.

Then, Bastian took into account the approximate travel times and costs for each of the 700-plus individuals in relation to each of the 48 sites. All in all, Bastian recorded 22,000 pieces of data for the project.

By undertaking such an extensive project, Bastian was able to predict relative economic gains and losses that Wyoming, Idaho and Montana would experience if a ban on snowmobiles were to ever occur in Yellowstone.

Bastian said he hopes to have finished his statistical analysis this fall, followed by a report no later than spring which details all potential economic values regarding the relationship between snowmobiling and the Yellowstone area.

Yellowstone and the economy: Economic impacts with and without the new proposed changes

If proposal does take effect:
• Local businesses suffer as a result of not being able to rent/sell as much equipment
• Less income is generated at park entrances, as less people are let into the park
• Yellowstone must find a way to maintain its income with a limitation of spenders
• Businesses near alternative snowmobiling sites may experience increase in business
• Cost to park visitors may increase so the park can maintain its income
• Snowmobile outfitters lose business by not being able to book trips into the park
• The park pays to train and hire snowmobile guides
• The snowmobile industry may experience a surplus of two-stroke-engine snowmobiles
• A higher demand may exist for more expensive four-stroke-engine snowmobiles
• Yellowstone may experience a shift in park usage; less people may lead to less activity

If proposal does not take effect:
• Local businesses profit because of more customers who rent/buy equipment
• Entrance fees are charged to an unlimited number of visitors
• Yellowstone encounters no limitation of spenders
• Businesses surrounding Yellowstone Park maintain incomes and sales
• Cost to visitors stays the same
• Snowmobile outfitters gain business by offering guided trips into Yellowstone
• Snowmobile guides in communities surrounding Yellowstone maintain jobs
• A high demand still exists for two-stroke-engine snowmobiles
• Less-expensive two-strokes and more-expensive four-strokes fuel market together
• Recreators of all kinds enjoy the park in the wintertime

See The Archives for past articles.

Copyright © 2002, 2003 Sublette Examiner
All rights reserved. Reproduction by any means must have permission of the Publisher.
Sublette Examiner, PO Box 1539, Pinedale, WY 82941   Phone 307-367-3203