The Current

Will Yellowstone's Snowmobile Ruling Change the Industry?

By December 2015, Yellowstone National Park wants snowmobiles to be quieter than a Cadillac's interior

    Photo: jeffgunn/Flickr

On October 22, after 15 years of debate and negotiation between park officials, wildlife experts, engineers, and politicians, the National Park Service announced its final rules on how it will govern the use of snowmobiles and snowcoaches in Yellowstone National Park. The rules, starting in the winter of 2014-2015, finalize limits on the number of snow machines, or "oversnow vehicles" (OSVs), that will be allowed into the park each day and requires that these vehicles pass strict air and noise emissions standards.

During the 1990s, the number of snowmobilers visiting the park skyrocketed, with as many as 80,000 snowmobilers entering the park during winter and as many as 1,500 on a single, high-volume day. This led not only to a serious air-quality problem inside the park – park rangers were resorting to wearing air respirators – but also to conflicts with wildlife. "In winter, the bison know they can travel more easily on the road," says Kristen Brengel, senior director of legislation and policy for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). Aside from wildlife conflicts, speeding and drunk sledding were also problems that endangered visitors and sucked up park resources.

The end to the long battle over access is welcome news to the snowmobile guides and outfitters that serve the park, who have been operating in limbo for many years. Outfitters will now have more flexibility in terms of responding to the ebb and flow of demand for their services, and the Park Service will begin allowing a very small number of (permitted) private snowmobilers into the park as well. Brengel says NPCA is opposed to this allowance, because private visitors tend to travel with more speed. The group also thinks the park should close the avalanche-prone east gate during winter. But overall, the NPCA is pleased with the ruling.

"No park superintendent has ever worked this hard to find common ground," says Brengel, referring to Yellowstone head Dan Wenk. "By racketing down noise and emissions, this is a really good proposal. It's a good example of when the Park Service does a good job of being an environmental leader and still enabling multiple uses."

The ruling sets some high bars for snowmobile and snowcoach air and noise emissions. To be allowed inside the park, sleds already must exceed the Environmental Protection Agency requirements for emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and sound. But starting in the 2015 winter season, limits will fall again. In terms of air emissions (15 g/kW-hr for hydrocarbons and  90 g/kW-hr for carbon monoxide), only a handful of sleds available today will meet those tougher standards, based on this list posted to the Yellowstone website. None of the models available now will meet the noise limit of 67 A-weighted decibels starting in 2015. Jay Meldrum, who runs the Clean Snowmobile Challenge and directs the Keweenaw Research Center, thinks the noise standard might be set a bit too high.

"Yellowstone went way beyond the EPA standards," he says. "In terms of air emissions, that is not too big a problem, it's just expensive [for manufacturers]. But I think the sound requirement is just too far. [The requirement] makes it more quiet on the outside of a snowmobile than in the inside of a Cadillac."

The snowmobile industry has already had to overhaul engine design in order to comply with new EPA standards, which were phased in during the 2000s. But the stricter rules that Yellowstone has set are not likely to move the snowmobile industry as a whole toward even cleaner machines. While important, the population of snowmobiles used in the park is small compared to the total number of sleds in the country (sales are highest in Michigan and Minnesota). Plus, the type of touring sled used in Yellowstone is not what most performance-seeking recreational riders are after.

With sales of snowmobiles shrinking in lock-step with year-on-year snowfall levels in most parts of the country, manufacturers are being squeezed between selling performance sleds for the masses and making exceptionally clean and quiet models for the Yellowstone niche.  

That said, a different kind of institutional pressure appears to be emerging as a possible catalyst for advancing snowmobile technology. The Canadian military has thus far put more than $600,000 toward the development of a hybrid snowmobile. It is focused more on the stealth qualities than the fuel-savings characteristics, says Meldrum, but the technology development is still important.

Meldrum says real energy-saving advancements in snowmobiles will come not through hybrids but by overcoming the tremendous friction in snowmobile drive trains, which is what has kept electric snowmobiles from advancing past a range of 15 or so miles on a single charge. If or when electric snowmobiles attain driving range on par with current internal combustion engines, snowmobiling will look – and sound – different not only in Yellowstone Park, but in every snowy landscape.

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