POWELL — The National Park Service is seeking public comment on a proposal to change its rules for winter use — increasing the amount of time the East Gate will be open to snowmobile travel by three weeks.
Modifications to the 2012-2013 Winter Use Plan would align opening and closing dates for the entrance west of Cody with the park’s other entrances. Under the proposed change, the East Entrance would open no earlier than Dec. 15 (one week earlier than current rules) and close no later than March 15 (two weeks later than currently).
The existing seasonal closures dates were originally implemented in 2008 due to avalanche safety concerns on Sylvan Pass. Through the years, NPS now has the “operational capacity and expertise to safely open the pass on December 15 and to keep it open until March 15,” the park announced in a release last week.
The changes would standardize opening and closing dates for the entire park. While it does increase the amount of time the East Gate can be open, it does not increase the daily limit on over-snow traffic.
Gary Fales Outfitting is the only vendor in service at the East Gate and is excited at the prospect of significantly increasing their operations — potentially by about 30%.
“Rangers are there, they keep it [the road] groomed, why not?” Gary Fales said Friday.
Co-owner Dede Fales has been writing letters every year to encourage the changes. The company rents sleds for the current season of about 70 days and feels adding three weeks could help offset the expense of the snowmobiles — which must use special, best science available limitations to meet stringent conservation requirements required by the National Park Service.
Yellowstone National Park manages the amount of oversnow vehicles in the park through the allocation of “transportation events.”
The 2013 Winter Use Rule allows for up to 110 total transportation events each day. A transportation event equals one group of snowmobiles (maximum group size of 10, seasonal average of seven) a noncommercial group (up to five snowmobiles), or one snowcoach. Of these transportation events, 50 events are reserved for snowmobiles (46 commercial, four non-commercial), and 60 are reserved for snowcoaches.
At the highest potential level of use, if all 50 snowmobile transportation events are used in a single day, there could be a maximum of 480 snowmobiles in the park. However, commercially guided snowmobile transportation events may not exceed an average of seven snowmobiles per event over the season, so the average number per day would be no higher than 342 snowmobiles.
Transportation events are allocated to each winter entrance plus Old Faithful, based on the demand at each of those entrances. The East Entrance is currently allocated two of the 46 transportation events for commercially guided snowmobiles, one transportation event for non-commercially guided snowmobiles, and one event for a commercial snowcoach.
“Removing the seasonal closure at the East Entrance would increase the number of snowmobiles in the park per day up to the level allowed under the existing Plan, ranging from an average of 14 additional snowmobiles per day to as many as 25 per day,” a park release reported.
While the plan will certainly result in a cleaner and safer visitation, parts of the plan “continue to trouble” the National Parks Conservation Association, including its insistence on keeping the unsafe East Entrance open in the winter season and a new move to permit non-commercially guided snowmobile trips.
“NPCA will continue to seek improvements in winter use management as the plan is implemented. Those concerns aside, after 16 years of studies, meetings and public engagement, NPCA congratulates the National Park Service on a winter use plan that significantly improves the health of our nation’s first national park,” said Tim Stevens, regional director for NPCA’s Northern Rockies office.
Attempts to reach representatives of the association for further comment went unanswered.
Another proposed change will delay the daily opening time for the South Entrance from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.
“The current opening time means that contract holders/operators leave Jackson, Wyoming, well before sunrise, and before road conditions can be properly assessed and hazards mitigated by NPS staff,” the Park Service release reported.
The park will make a decision on the proposal after evaluating public comments and completing regulatory requirements.
The Fales are “very happy” about the potential, Gary Fales said. Due to requirements, the company must replace their fleet of snowmobiles every six years. The increased number of days they can be used will make their business more profitable, giving each sled effectively two extra seasons of use compared to current regulations.
“We are encouraging folks to make comments,” Fales said.
Comments must be received by Thursday, Oct. 29. Comments may be submitted online at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/