When I was about eight years old, I took my first trip to Yellowstone National Park with my grandparents and I ended up breaking the law.
I stole a rock.
Despite seeing all the signs posted all around Yellowstone that warned of federal fines or even jail time for taking anything from the park home with you and disrupting the ecosystem, I looked over my shoulder nervously and pocketed a yellow pebble of rhyolite for which the park gets its name. I collected rocks at the time, so I didn’t feel terrible about it.
Now I feel some remorse for doing that, even though I don’t think the FBI is going to come knocking at my door anytime soon for my crime. No one else can enjoy that rock that used to sit on the rim of Yellowstone Canyon anymore. I don’t even know what happened to that rock. It must be in box somewhere in storage.
Although people who steal rocks are a petty problem compared to some of the other terrors going on today in Yellowstone. Most notably, the increased use of snowmobiles during the winter months has created a controversy between local business owners and tourism advocates against conservationists and environmentalists.
It’s currently not illegal to snowmobile inside the park, as it is in other parks like Rocky Mountain and Glacier, but on some weekends so many snowmobiles enter Yellowstone that the smoggy air fills with their exhaust and forces park rangers to wear gas masks just so they can breathe. And the smog’s affect on wildlife has only begun to be studied.
That sort of environmental impact defeats the saying: “take only pictures and leave only footprints” doesn’t it?
Last week the Bush administration, in attempt to solve the problem, created a compromise that made nobody happy.
The Bush proposal would restrict the amount of snowmobiles that enter each park entrance and would require that 80 percent of snowmobiles be led by guides. Within two years the proposal would also demand that all snowmobiles entering the park have four-stroke engines that are said to be quieter and less polluting.
The proposal overturns a recommendation by the Clinton administration to completely ban all snowmobiles by the winter of 2003-2004, and environmental groups are up in arms.
“We are very disappointed that the Park Service dismissed the overwhelming public support in favor of the bans,” said Steve Bosak, director of motorized use for the National Parks Conservation Association. “People believe in protecting the parks, and they understand that is more important than giving a small group of people who want to use snowmobiles the right to pollute and disrupt the park experience for everyone else.”
Business leaders are also displeased, citing the cap for snowmobiles entering Yellowstone would cut business in half during times of peak use and damage tourism in the park’s neighboring towns.
“(The administration) is trying to spin this as allowing an increase in snowmobile use,” said Glen Loomis, owner of Polaris West in West Yellowstone, Mont., a shop that sells and rents snowmobiles, “but that’s not what’s going to happen here at all.”
I’m not sure what to think of the new plan. I wouldn’t be saddened if snowmobiles where completely banned from our nation’s oldest national park. After all, the West is not lacking in other great places to snowmobile.
I occasionally go up to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park and I know I wouldn’t want to be disturbed by noisy snowmobiles tearing through the tundra while I was trying to take photos of pristine valleys and trying to breathe the clean mountain air.
However, if snowmobiles were nearly silent, didn’t pollute and were regulated to stay on reserved trails that had little impact on wildlife, it may be acceptable to admit a limited number of them into the park. We have engineering students right here at CSU who are working on new snowmobile designs that have much less impact on the environment.
I think that would be fair. What if the National Park Service decided to close Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park because of too much traffic? It would devastate the tourism business in cities such as Estes Park and Grand Lake. How different is that proposition from completely banning cleaner snowmobiles in designated trails in Yellowstone?
There seems to be no perfect solution to please everyone, so a compromise is exactly what is needed.
We need to make sure individual people do not ruin the experience of visiting our national parks for the rest of us and that we do all we can to help preserve these lands for future generations, while balancing the need for tourism to survive in surrounding communities. That means not using outdated, noisy, pollution spewing snowmobiles or stealing rocks.