From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 23 - September 4, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Yellowstone National Park - Part 3
environment vs. economic: economic ignored?
by Kate Neely

Part Three: Current concerns, different points of view

Congestion. Wildlife disturbance. Noise pollution. Maybe some people who are reading this are rolling their eyes about now. We've all heard about it. It doesn't seem to go away. These are some of the concerns that have been voiced throughout the long-standing debate of what to do about snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

While all of these are important points to consider, there is another side of the coin.

Chris Bastian, an economist at the University of Wyoming, has been conducting research regarding the economic impacts of snowmobiling in Yellowstone in pursuit of his doctoral dissertation. While his research hinges upon economic factors, he has not shut his eyes to the environmental battle that is forever raging in the national park-snowmobile controversy.

"The conflict really comes in," Bastian said, " ... how can we manage [the park] to conserve it so that the most economic value can be derived over the long term?"

The latest proposed policy changes that are being considered, which would go into effect this December if passed, are: 1) to ban two-stroke snowmobile engines in the park; 2) to allow only snowmobiles with four-stroke engines in the park; 3) to allow four-stroke snowmobiles in the park only when accompanied by an official guide; and 4) to cap or limit numbers of daily visitors in the park.

According to an article released in July from the University of Wyoming's Cooperative Extension Service and senior editor Vicki Hamende, all states surrounding the park - Wyoming, Idaho and Montana - are concerned about the effects that Yellowstone's policy changes could have on their state economies. The three states surrounding Yellowstone share common issues when it comes to the park's proposed policy changes and the economies. Currently, the park's catering to recreation greatly supports businesses surrounding Yellowstone, as businesses are able to sell and rent equipment and offer services.

State agencies and community planners are also concerned about the newest policy, as the latest mandates would cause them to face a probable reduction to the number of visitors in the park.

These concerns apply to the possibility that the park would limit the number of visitors who pass through its gates. If the number of visitors to the park were limited, what would that do to business in and around the park?

As an economist, Bastian said he questions how plausible it would be for the park to cap its visitation each year. He said he wondered how many resources the park has that could help to monitor the number the people coming and going in and out of the park. It is also relevant to question what the maximum number of visitors would be if a cap were placed on visitation. Such a number would have to be considerate of two extremes: congestion issues and the environment, and economic support to the park and surrounding communities.

On the environmental side of the coin, the latest proposal provides a compromise of sorts, while still keeping park conservation in consideration. According to Bastian, placing a cap on visitation is more reasonable than simply banning all snowmobiles from the park, which Bastian said he considered to be an extreme policy.

Bastian shared his concerns with the newest proposals. Scientific data has indicated potential for noise pollution. There have also been reports of residue from two-stroke snowmobile engines being found in the snow. And from an environmental standpoint, Bastian said, these are important points to consider.

But environmentally, Bastian said he feels that the most potentially damning issue to Yellowstone is the potential harm to the park's wildlife associated with energy consumption during winter. For example, interaction between tourists and big game animals could result in game animals consuming unnecessary energy to stay out of the way of tourists.

The impact on wildlife cannot be blamed solely on snowmobilers, though, Bastian pointed out. While it seems that in the past, snowmobilers have suffered nearly all of the blame for impacting wildlife, all human interaction in the park affects wildlife - skiers, snow-shoers, snow-coach passengers and drivers and tour guides included.

After examining scientific and wildlife journals, Bastian said he believes that the impact of humans on wildlife in the park is less of an issue than he originally thought it would be.

The issue of congestion may not be as grand as some people think, either. It's possible that congestion could exist at the park's entrances and not exist throughout the park's interior, as there are only five places to enter/exit the park and miles of spacious land inside the park's borders to enjoy. While entrances may be congested, people naturally disperse as they venture into the park.

As Bastian pointed out, the issues involving Yellowstone and snowmobiles always come down to a tension between preservation and conservation. It is important to consider ways to conserve the land while at the same time considering how to derive the greatest economic value from it over the long term.

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