By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, Wyoming (Reuters) - Yellowstone National Park plans to allow more snowmobiles to traverse its neat, snowy roads on peak winter travel days while cutting noise and air pollution under a compromise proposal to balance environmental concerns with recreation.
This could end years of squabbling over snow traffic limits in the park and ultimately allow up to 480 snowmobiles on the busiest days, such as national holidays. This would be balanced by much lower traffic over the rest of the winter.
Yellowstone, home to the Old Faithful geyser, draws winter visitors seeking the solitude of its pristine vistas to watch wildlife or ski. Some environmentalists and visitors are concerned that heavy traffic could spoil the mood and add to pollution.
Under the plan, which will be phased in over three years, the National Park Service will manage snowmobile and snow coach traffic by allowing up to 110 daily so-called "transportation events." It would ultimately allow an average of 342 snowmobiles per day to travel in groups in the park, and operators could bring in more on peak days if there was lower traffic at other times.
It would also allow 60 snow coaches, each of which could carry groups of about a dozen visitors on sightseeing trips throughout the park.
Autos are only allowed on a limited section of plowed roads in the park during winter, while over-snow vehicles must stay on snow-covered roads. Commercial guides are required, and travel is highly regulated.
SUPPORT FROM CONSERVATION GROUPS
Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said the plan, which would also require snowmobiles to meet stricter environmental standards by 2017, "will make the park quieter and cleaner". He said visitors' experience would remain high.
Winter use in Yellowstone has been the subject of ongoing litigation over the past 15 years, with some environmental groups seeking limits or bans on snowmobile traffic.
Mark Pearson, conservation program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said his group would ask for minor tweaks to the plan, such as earlier deadlines to improve noise and emissions standards.
He said the overall plan "seems to be headed in a direction that I think will ultimately satisfy most of the concerns of most people."
Objections have been raised over the cost, risk and environmental effects of using a howitzer cannon to remove snow on avalanche-prone Sylvan Pass, a mile-long stretch of road at 8,500 feet just inside the park's east entrance.
"There's a question of how appropriate it is to be using explosives in a national park for a discretionary recreational activity that only benefits a handful of people each winter," Pearson said.
While the plan sets snowmobile limits that remain lower than those from a decade ago, it still provides good opportunities for winter tourism, said Scott Balyo, head of the Chamber of Commerce for Cody, the Wyoming town at the park's eastern boundary.
Balyo said he was "pleased to see that Sylvan Pass will remain open," and that the plan called for a pilot program allowing a limited number of non-commercial guides to take visitors on snowmobile trips.
The plan is due to go into effect during the 2014-15 winter season.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)