Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park


Winter recreation has been on the rise in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) since the first snowmobiles plowed trails to Old Faithful back in 1963. In the past 40 years, the number and types of recreationists have steadily increased winter use of the park to more than 140,000 visitors each year (National Park Service 2000).  Under the National Park Service Organic Act, the National Park Service is obligated to manage YNP for the dual mandate of providing recreation opportunities and conserving the natural environment and wildlife within the park.

Photo 1: Main entrance to Yellowstone National Park-Gardiner, Montana.  Photo taken by Gina Smith 2002.

Figure 1: Map of Greater Yellowstone Area

Growing concern about the effects of current recreation levels on Yellowstone’s facilities and personnel, the demand on adjacent communities, as well as the impact on the park’s wildlife and natural environment; prompted a multi-agency assessment of winter visitor use in the Greater Yellowstone Area  (GYA) for YNP and Grand Teton National Park in the early 1990s.  In November 2000, the Park Service signed a decision that recreational use of snowmobiles would be in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks as of the 2003-2004 winter season.   The result of that Final Environmental Impact Statement (NPS 2000) on winter use prompted the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and the State of Wyoming to file suit against the National Parks Service.   To comply with the settlement of that case, the NPS has issued a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (NPS 2002) that will be completed after a comment and review period in November 2002.

This web site focuses on the issue of snowmobiles in YNP.  It is designed to provide a brief background on the history of snowmobiles in the park, from their introduction to the current situation.  It introduces information on a number of shareholders involved in the snowmobile debate, sets an overview of alternative solutions to snowmobile use in YNP, and assesses the Park Service’s dual mandate.


·        National Park Service: Dual Mandate?

The Snowmobile debate in Yellowstone is just one of the latest facing the National Park Service (NPS), which is often said to have a dual mandate, referring to the charge to conserve our parks while providing recreation opportunities.  By law, the NPS is mandated, per the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act as follows:

The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purposes of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations (emphasis added).

Clearly, both preservation and recreation are addressed.  However, recreation is only permitted with the caveat that it must not degrade the environment or wildlife.  Indeed, the carefully chosen language of the mandate, put forth by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., has weathered numerous lawsuits that have in general served to strengthen the NPS's resource protection powers.

The NPS's Introduction to the National Park Service Organic Act continues...

“In 1974-76, the Sierra Club sued the NPS to take action against commercial loggers, whose activities outside the boundaries of Redwood National Park were damaging park resources. When Redwood was created, portions of the Redwood Creek watershed were left out of the original boundary for political reasons. Congress had authorized the Secretary [of the Interior] to acquire easements and enter into management agreements with the timber companies, but the Park Service had not taken these actions, resulting in the lawsuit. The courts ruled that the Park Service had not taken the appropriate actions to protect the park, and the Park Service then asked Congress for help in taking such actions. (Sierra Club v Department of the Interior, 376 F. Supp. 90 (N.D.Cal. 1974); Ibid., 398 F. Supp. 284(1975); Ibid., 424 F. Supp. 172 (1976).)

In response, Congress passed an amendment in 1978 to the Organic Act that addressed the problem. It also generically strengthened the National Park Service's protective function. This amendment states that "the protection, management, and administration of these areas shall be conducted in light of the high public value and integrity of the National Park System and shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established, except as may have been or shall be directly and specifically provided by Congress." Thus, Congress' intent for each park as established in the park enabling legislation is upheld by the Organic Act, as well as Congress' option of amending that legislation if necessary.

As amended, the Organic Act allows the Secretary a great deal of latitude in making management decisions, and the courts have consistently upheld this latitude, especially if it is supported by careful study and planning. The Secretary can exclude a use that is detrimental to resources, or allow a use if it is determined to be appropriate. For example, commercial fishing is prohibited in Everglades National Park. When deciding a lawsuit brought by commercial fishermen challenging the regulation, the court carefully reviewed the planning and public information process and ruled that the Park Service was well within its administrative authority. (Organized Fishermen v. Watt, 590 F. Supp. 805 (S.D. Fla 1984); affirmed, 77 F.2d 1544 (llth Cir. 1985).)  When the National Rifle Association challenged the Park Service's right to ban hunting and trapping (except where part of the unit's enabling legislation), the court ruled that the Organic Act clearly provided for the protection of wildlife and that the Park Service was acting within its authority. (National Rifle Association v Potter, 628 F. Supp. 903 (D.D.C. 1986).)

Alternatively, the Secretary can permit a use if it has been clearly proven not to threaten resources. For example, at Cape Cod the general management plan allows off-road vehicle (ORV) use under guidelines designed to protect the ecological integrity of the area. Environmental groups sued to stop ORV use altogether, on the assumption that any ORV use would permanently damage the ecosystem. The court ruled that the management plan adequately protected the ecosystem and that "Park Service decisions were the result of carefully designed, scientifically based studies and continued monitoring efforts." (Conservation Law Foundation v Clark, 590 F. Supp. 1467 (D. Mass. 1984).)

The Organic Act will undoubtedly continue to be tested and defined in the courts. As it stands, it provides a powerful weapon in the National Park Service's continued battle to protect the nation's natural and cultural resources.”

Figure 2: Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

It would seem then that if snowmobiling I Yellowstone is either detrimental to the wildlife or distracting of the enjoyment of other visitors, that the NPS has the authority and responsibility to control the activity.  YNP, though, is not the only area of concern.  It is only the central land-use unit in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).  Surrounding Yellowstone National Park, and helping delineate the GYE, are several National Forests.  The National Forest Service, as an agency of the USDA, has a different mandate.

Mission: Caring for the Land and Serving People

As set forth in law, the mission of the NFS is to achieve quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use management concept to meet the diverse needs of people.  It includes:

In a speech on Monday the 2nd of March, 1998, former Forest Chief Mike Dombeck reminded 300 Forest Service employees of their mission.

Quote from former Forest Chief Mike Dombeck in his speech to 300 Forest Service employees on Monday the 2nd of March, 1998, “A Gradual Unfolding of a National Purpose: A Natural Resource Agenda for the 21st Century”:

“We cannot simply preserve our wilderness areas and national parks and by extension hope to protect our natural resource heritage. We cannot afford to manage our national forests and other public lands in isolation of state and private lands. We must work with state and local governments and communities to link neighborhood creeks and tree-lined streets to the sea-bound rivers, state and national parks, and forests. (emphasis added)

Our agenda takes the not-so-new position that we must do more to sustain and restore the fabric of the whole landscape. If we are wise enough to understand the physics of splitting the atom, advanced enough to communicate instantaneously around the globe, if we can feed billions of people, surely we can act with enough foresight and wisdom to protect and restore our lands and waters. If this nation, of all others, cannot demonstrate how to live in harmony with the natural world that sustains us, what hope is there for other nations?”

Additional protection is afforded by the Wilderness Act, which applies to both National Park and National Forest lands, as well as Bureau of Land Management and Fish & Wildlife Service lands, which have been designated as Wilderness Areas.  Some of the NFS land around the Park is Wilderness.  The Act contains the following prohibition.


(c) Except as specifically provided for in this chapter, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this chapter and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this chapter (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

History of Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park spans almost 2,220,000 acres and has a winter season with an annual snowfall of 150 inches, which make it difficult for cars to tour the landscape.  The park needed a way to keep tourism active during the winter months, in spite of difficult winter travel conditions.  In the late 1940s the first snowplanes came into the park and by the mid-1950s the first snowcoaches were introduced to increase winter tourism.

  Photo 2: A Lorch Snowplane

Photo 3: A snowcoach

Click on the snowcoach to learn about snowcoach vacations!

The first snowmobiles were allowed into Yellowstone in 1963 when the National Park Service permitted 36 of its units to be open to snowmobile use.  Though only 6 “sleds” entered the park that year, snowmobiles quickly became the choice winter recreation activity of many individuals.  By the 1968/1969-winter season, more than 17,000 people had ridden through the park (National Park Service 2000).

Currently there can be as many as 75,000 snowmobiles coming through YNP each year, with as many as 55,000 of those snowmobiles coming thought the West Yellowstone entrance (NPS 2000).  The volume and popularity of the West Yellowstone entrance to the park by snowmobiles has earned the town the title of The Snowmobile Capital of the World

Photo 4: Snowmobiles

Current average snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park during the winter season (NPS 2000):

Benefit to Economy

The Greater Yellowstone Area consists of a five-county, three-state region where most of the socioeconomic impacts of the decision to reduce snowmobile use would be most felt (NPS 2000).  Reduction in the winter tourism expenditures by Yellowstone visitors is the primary economic impact that alternatives in winter use management would have on GYA communities.

Snowmobiling in YNP has become an integral part of the winter economy for West Yellowstone and other communities surrounding the park. 

In 1988, the town of West Yellowstone was without paved streets and sidewalks.  The town earned most of its revenue during the summer months when tourist volume was at its peak, while most shops closed down for the winter season because of low activity.  As would-be snowmobilers opted to use West Yellowstone as a staging ground for rides into the national park, tourist volume increased. 

Photo 5: Downtown West Yellowstone, MT

The town now has paved streets and sidewalks.

Today, shops are open year round and five new motels have been established in the last two years.  Changes in snowmobile policy could alter the winter recreation-based economy that has helped West Yellowstone grow into a year-round site for tourism.  The 2001 Final Environmental Impact Statement of Winter Use for Yellowstone National Park indicated that a complete snowmobile ban would cause a 30% decline in winter visitation and lead to a $16 million loss for the communities of the Greater Yellowstone Area.

To learn more about the economic significance of snowmobiles to communities in the GYA, read Brett French’s article “Losses from snowmobile ban studied” in the February 23, 2002 issue of the Billings Gazette.

Environmental, Human Health and Safety Concerns

There are several reasons why snowmobiling in Yellowstone has become a debated topic.  While many GYA economies have benefited by the popularity of winter recreation that allows tourists to snowmobile through Yellowstone past Old Faithful, there are many environmental groups that have pointed out the problems with the current winter use system. 

One problem is the fact that snowmobiles disturb the natural serenity of the park.  The two-stroke engine of most snowmobiles results in noise pollution that can be heard for great distances through out the park. 

Another problem is air quality.  While automobiles outnumber snowmobiles 16 to 1, snowmobiles contribute up to 78% of the park’s annual carbon monoxide emissions-100 times greater than cars-and up to 94% of the hydrocarbon emissions-300 times greater than cars.  Employee concern about the blue haze around the west entrance to Yellowstone, lead park rangers at the entrance to start wearing masks to help them breath.       


Photo 6: “Blue haze”

from snowmobiles at an entrance to the park

The International Snowmobile Manufacturing Association has put the administration under a great deal of pressure.  They state that snowmobiles with the four-stroke engine, instead of the louder two-stroke one, could coexist with other recreationists and that alternative fuel sources are already being used by snowmobilers to reduce the amount of toxic admissions.  They state that the Environmental Protection Agency used older data for their statement and with new improvements to the engines they should be allowed to use snowmobiles for ten weeks out of the year. 

To learn more about the EPA recommendation to ban snowmobiles in the YNP check out the story “EPA backs snowmobile ban in Yellowstone, Grand Teton” in the April 30, 2002 edition of the Seattle Times.

Another concern is safety.  In 1998, snowmobiles comprised 2% of the year’s total visitors but were involved in 9% of the year’s motor vehicle accidents.  These are some of the reasons that have been brought to the forefront in the argument to close Yellowstone to snowmobiling (Presentation).

To learn more about the environmental effects of snowmobiles to air quality, noise pollution, public health and some wildlife concerns check out Clean Snowmobile Facts from Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Legal Action

Throughout the 1980s the first winter-use planning processes began which prompted the first snowmobile monitoring within the park. The first winter use plan and Environmental Assessment was completed by 1990 and snowmobiling has continued in the park until recently with some modifications.  It was a petition in 1999 from the Bluewater Network that has lead to a potential ban on snowmobiling.  On November 22, 2000 the National Park Service signed a record of decision that banned snowmobiles as of winter 2003-2004.  Under the plan, snowmobiles would be phased out with no changes occurring during the 2001-02 season and only half the number of snowmobiles would be allowed to enter the following year.  Snowmobiles would be banned for the 2003-2004 season.  A number of different alternatives are currently being developed to allow for some use of snowmobiles within the park, but legislation is still pending regarding the reintroduction of snowmobiles during the winter season.

Pending Legislation

February 2001, Senator Craig Thomas (R, Wyoming) introduced legislation to overturn the ban, requiring the development of new emissions and noise standards for snowmobiles.

April 2001, Representative Rush Hold (D, New Jersey) introduced legislation to uphold the snowmobile ban.


Key players in the debate about appropriate winter recreation in YNP want a variety of concerns to be addressed as the National Park Service makes its decision about managing for snowmobile use.  The shareholders include conservationists, recreationists, snowmobilers, snowmobile manufactures, and the communities of the GYA that would be affected by a change in winter use policy.  The NPS must balance the concerns of these shareholders along with their obligation to preserve the land and offer recreational experiences for the public.

Organizations that are for Snowmobile Use in Yellowstone include:

BlueRibbon Coalition

-The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association

-The BlueRibbon Coalition

-The Wyoming State Snowmobile Association

Graphic 1: The BlueRibbon Coalition is an advocate

for recreational use of public lands.

Organizations that are for Banning or Reducing Snowmobile Use in Yellowstone include:

-The Wilderness Society

-Greater Yellowstone Coalition

-The Bluewater Network

-Winter Wildlands Alliance

-National Parks Conservation Association

Photo 7: The Greater Yellowstone Coalition

is for solutions that preserve natural resources,

wildlife and the communities of the GYA.

The communities of the GYA are also concerned about the socioeconomic effect that a change in Yellowstone’s Winter Use Plan would have. Many local economies earn some of their revenues during YNP’s winter tourist season.  They are concerned that eliminating snowmobile travel or closing down entrances to the park could significantly reduce their revenue.  Studies by the University of Montana and the National Park Service have predicted different levels of impact.  The UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research estimated that non-resident snowmobilers spent over $44 million in Montana during the 1997-1998 season, while the 2000 economic study by the NPS found that the snowmobile phase out would impact the town of West Yellowstone by about $5 million per year, but that effects to the economy as a whole would be inconsequential.

To learn more about how some GYA residents are dealing with the snowmobile phase out read “Snowmobiles cruise into a quieter future at Yellowstone” in the January 13, 2002 edition of the Seattle Times,




The National Park Service completed its review of winter use for Yellowstone National Park in October 2000.  In its Winter Use Plans: Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway the NPS outlined seven alternatives for managing winter recreation in YNP and GTNP.

These alternatives ranged from no change to the current winter use policy to ones that emphasize wildlife protection, to those that focus on cleaner motorized recreation, and to those trying to balance for both recreation and wildlife concerns.  The Park Service also recommended a preferred alternative, Alternative G emphasizing clean, quite access to the Yellowstone, only by NPS-managed snowcoaches.  It would also attempt to address issues of noise, health and safety concerns as well as recreational impact on wildlife and natural resources; while still providing for a means of winter visitor access. 

The Draft SEIS

But in December 2000, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and the State of Wyoming filed a suit against the park regarding its decision to ban snowmobiles by 2003-2004.  The settlement agreement called for the Department of the Interior to put out a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) on winter use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.  The draft of the SEIS was released in February 19, 2002, and allowed for a public comment and review period before its final evaluation in November 2002.  At that time, the Park Service will make a decision about snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

The alternatives presented in the draft SEIS:

Under the plan, beginning in 2002-03, daily limits would be set to limit total recreational snowmobile use to about 50 percent of the current average annual use levels at the South and West entrances of Yellowstone Park. Current snowmobile use levels would remain at the East and North entrances of the park.

Beginning in winter 2003-04, snowmobiling would be banned in the parks and parkway, and only NPS-managed snowcoach travel would be allowed.

Both of the No Action alternatives provide for access by a NPS-managed, mass transit snowcoach system.

Under this alternative, there would be daily limits set for how many snowmobiles will be allowed to enter the snowmobiles parks' four entrances.

Photo 8: Snowmobiles following bison trails

The approximate Interim Daily Use Limits proposed under this plan would be:

North Entrance near Mammoth Terraces: 100 snowmobiles/day.

West Entrance in West Yellowstone:                       900 snowmobiles/day in 2002-03

700/day in 2003-04

500/day from 2004-05 on into the    future

East Entrance to Fishing Bridge:                              200 snowmobiles/day

South Entrance:                                                         150 snowmobiles

For a more detailed summary of the Draft SEIS Alternatives check out this table.

Under ALTERNATIVE 3, there would be daily limits set for how many snowmobiles will be allowed to enter the parks' four entrances.

The approximate Interim Daily Use Limits Proposed under this plan would be:

North Entrance near Mammoth Terraces: 100 snowmobiles/day

West Entrance in West Yellowstone:                       330 snowmobiles/day in 2002-03

                                                                                    700/day in 2003-04

500/day from 2004-05 on into the future;

East Entrance to Fishing Bridge:                              100 snowmobiles/day

South Entrance:                                                         400 snowmobiles/day

Alternative Supporters

Graphic 2: The Wilderness Society

The Wilderness Society Some shareholders, such as The Wilderness Society, are unsatisfied with the current list of alternatives for winter recreation and want the National Park Service to uphold its original decision to ban snowmobiles by the 2003-2004 season.  The Wilderness Society is for Alternative 1 A, in the SEIS, an alternative that would implement a ban on snowmobiles in 2003-2004.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition would also like a different alternative to be implemented in Yellowstone for winter recreation that calls for recreational access to the park and resource protection.  The Greater Yellowstone Coalition developed a plan of its own called the Citizen’s Solution for Winter Access to Yellowstone, which calls for:

Graphic 3: The Citizen’s Solution

-all over-snow access in the park to be provided for by snowcoaches

-the NPS should award snowcoach concessions to gateway business of GYA communities to help them in the transition away from snowmobile rental businesses

-the NPS to study winter visitor carrying capacity of GYA national parks

-the NPS to limit off-trail back country use by skiers and snowshoers where wildlife need additional protection

Other organizations concerned with the NPS’s decision are for alternatives listed in the FEIS that geared towards motorized access to the park.  The International Snowmobile Manufacturing Association, The BlueRibbon Coalition, and the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association include snowmobilers in for the concepts in Alternative B because these alternatives offer access to the park by personal snowmobiles, a reduced, safer speed-of 35 m.p.h. instead of 45 m.p.h.-and may help alleviate overcrowding and congestion in the park. 


In November 2002, the National Park Service will evaluate the alternatives listed in the draft SEIS and make a decision to either go through with the snowmobile ban by the 2003-2004 winter season or to implement an alternative solution that would allow some form of snowmobile access to the park.   Conservationists, recreationists, businesses and communities in the Greater Yellowstone Area will likely have something so say about the Park Service’s snowmobile decision.  And that is one of the challenges of the snowmobiles in Yellowstone debate:  how to have economically viable, yet ecologically sustainable management policies that comply with the mandate of preserving Yellowstone’s natural resources and offering the people a recreational experience.


Check out the “Bear Necessities” snowmobile game and help a grizzly get a decent winter torpor!!



French, Brett.  2002.  Loses from snowmobile ban studied. Billings Gazette.  February 23, 2002.

Forest Chief Mike Dombeck in his speech to 300 Forest Service employees on Monday the 2nd of March, 1998, “A Gradual Unfolding of a National Purpose: A Natural Resource Agenda for the 21st Century”

McMillion, Scott.  2002.  Snowmobiles cruise into a quieter future at Yellowstone.  Bozeman Daily Chronicle.  January 13, 2002. 

National Park Service, October 2000. Winter Use Plans: Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway. < May 29, 2002.

National Park Service, March 2002. Winter Use Plans: Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway. < May 29, 2002.

Websites and Links

Billings Gazette. 2002. < May 29, 2002.

Bluewater Network.  2002. < May 29, 2002.

Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.  2002. < May 29, 2002.

Bozeman Daily Chronicle. 2002. May 29, 2002.

Clean Snowmobile Facts.  2002.

< May 29, 2002.

Environmental Protection Agency.  2002.  < May 29, 2002.

Environmental Protection Agency’s statement on Clean Recreation.  2002.  < May 29, 2002.

Greater Yellowstone Coalition.  2002.  < May 29, 2002.

Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Citizen’s Solution. 2002. < May 29, 2002.

International Snowmobile Manufactures Association.  2002. < May 29, 2002.

Montana Forum. 2002. < May 29, 2002.

National Parks Conservation Association.  2002. May 29, 2002.

National Parks Organic Act.  2002.

< May 29, 2002.

National Park Service.  2002. < May 29, 2002.

National Wilderness Preservation System. 2002.  < May 29, 2002.

Seattle Times.  2002.  < May 29, 2002.

United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. 2002.  < May 29, 2002.

Wilderness Society.  2002.   < May 29, 2002.

Winter Wildlands Alliance.  2002. < May 29, 2002.

Wyoming State Trails Program.  2002. < May 29, 2002.

Yellowstone National Park.  2002.  < May 29, 2002.

Photos, Figures, and Graphics

Photo 1: Picture entrance to YNP, taken by Gina Smith on the March 2002 Yellowstone Trip for ESC 459.

Photo 2: Picture of snowplane, courtesy of Faster Than Light Communications  May 29, 2002.

Photos 3 & 8: Pictures of a snowcoach and snowmobile on bison trail, courtesy of CNN.  May 29, 2002. 

Photo 4: Picture of snowmobiles by Christine Mulvey, courtesy of Save Yellowstone. May 29, 2002.

Photo 5: Picture of paved street in West Yellowstone, courtesy of West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.  May 29, 2002.

Photo 6: Picture of snowmobile bluehaze, courtesy of Save Yellowstone. May 29, 2002

Photo 7: Picture of snowscape with question about the future of snowmobiling, courtesy of Greater Yellowstone Coalition.  May 29, 2002.

Figure 1: Map of the Greater Yellowstone Area, courtesy of Yellowstone National Park.  May 29, 2002.

Figure 2: Map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, courtesy of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. May 29, 2002.

Graphic 1: The BlueRibbon Coalition logo, courtesy of the The BlueRibbon Coalition,  May 29, 2002.

Graphic 2: The Wilderness Society logo, courtesy of The Wilderness Society,  May 29, 2002.

Graphic 3: The Citizen’s Solution graphic, courtesy of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition,  May 29, 2002.

Graphic 4: The Bear Necessities Game, courtesy of the National Parks Conservation Association,  May 29, 2002.