You are here

Group Forms to Urge Plowing Of Roads In Yellowstone National Park

Bombardier at Kepler Cascades, copyright Kurt Repanshek

Should some of Yellowstone's roads be plowed in winter to make access easier and more affordable? NPT file photo by Kurt Repanshek

With Yellowstone National Park managers back at work on producing a winter-use plan pertaining to getting around the park, at least one group has mounted a campaign to see some of the park's roads plowed in winter.

The folks behind Plow Yellowstone Park would like to see the road from West Yellowstone, Montana, to Old Faithful in the park's interior kept open during the winter months.

It seems the environmental groups are all focusing on what type of winter vehicle, and how many, should be allowed in the park in winter. They are focused on the wrong question. The question is, should it continue to be over snow travel at all? Why not plow the roads?

Plowing the roads would accomplish many things. The first and most important being public access for all, similar to the method presently employed from mid April to November 1st in Yellowstone. People would be allowed into Yellowstone in their own vehicles. (Any vehicle that can make it to West Yellowstone from either Idaho Falls, Idaho, or Bozeman, Montana, could make the trip from West to Old Faithful.) You could use your National Park Pass, or get a 7 day weekly pass for $25. The only other cost would be fueling the vehicle and whatever other amenities one plans to purchase in Yellowstone.

Plowing Yellowstone's roads is not a new idea. In his book, Yellowstone and the Snowmobile, Locking Horns Over National Park Use, writer Michael Yochim points out that in 1931 officials in Cody, Wyoming, on the park's eastern side began lobbying to see Yellowstone's roads kept open in winter. Mr. Yochim also pointed out that in 1998, when Yellowstone officials were working on an earlier winter-use proposal, they then considered plowing the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful.

One of the primary benefits of this idea was that it would substantially reduce costs for both the agency and the public. Visitors would be able to tour the park in their own vehicles rather than renting snowmobiles at over $100 per day (riding double on a snowmobile could halve the per person cost, but few chose to do so) or buying snowcoach tickets, which started at about $60. The plowing idea was not unique to the NPS; at a three-day conference in October 1998 with other local government agencies interested in Yellowstone's winter use, two different work groups (out of five, total) independently came up with the same idea. With several groups thinking the same way, park planners were confident enough to incorporate the limited plowing proposal into the preferred alternative in the Draft EIS.

But the plowing option never has seemed to gain much traction, surely not enough to go head-to-head with those who favor snowmobiles or those who favor snowcoaches for touring Yellowstone in winter. That's somewhat surprising, in light of the benefits it would provide, as Mr. Yochim pointed out:

With the reality of global warming and the human contribution thereto now proven and commonly accepted, it would be irresponsible for the NPS to convert to a snowcoach-only transportation system when more fuel-efficient options, such as public buses and vans (on wheels, not tracks and skis), are readily available. In addition to contributing less to global warming, buses and vans would affect park resources less than oversnow vehicles do; furthermore, because they have fewer moving parks and have been regulated for years, buses are quieter than oversnow vehicles. ... Using buses and vans would cause parkwide fuel use to decline because visitor travel would consume less fuel and the NPS would not need to plow roads in spring (the overall fuel and labor used to plow roads in winter would be similar to the amounts currently used to groom the, but the lack of spring plowing would save large amounts of fuel and reduce labor costs). ... In short, public transportation and associated plowing would better protect visitor pocketbooks, park resources, global climate, and Yellowstone's retreat-like nature than either snowcoaches or snowmobiles.

Yellowstone officials currently are collecting public comment on winter-use in the park through the end of March.


And here all this time, one of the arguments against snowmobiles was the stress factor on the wildlife. It seems that bringing automobiles into the park will accomplish this same thing wouldn't it?

While I don't necessarily support this proposal, I think this moves the debate in the right direction. The snowmobile v. snowcoach arguments over the last decade missed something I've mentioned here time and time again - that either environmentally impactful way you go, access is restricted only for the wealthy. Access is unfair and based completely on wealth. That is what a system of paying for snowmobile guides and snowcoaches have given us. Only the northern part is accessible in the fairest way possible.

I'd prefer access were restricted to all (except the north - until you could figure out what to do about Silver Gate and Cooke City, which would be cut off from the world without plowing in the winter); open to what you could produce with your own mobility - skis, snowshoes, etc. But, lacking that, I'd rather see plowing than the current system, which is awful. It's refreshing to see the argument finally move in this direction.

But, as long it was professional environmental groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition v. the motorized recreational vehicle industry, you were never going to get anything better than the intolerable question of which access for rich people was slightly less environmentally damaging - all along, it was assumed the rich should have some form of access.

For me, "plow Yellowstone" finally brings the issue of fairness of access into it all.

While plowing would no doubt be more egalitarian, it doesn't lack its own problems, though. How would you deal with wildlife during heavy snow years, when plowing would result in berms 5+ feet and more on either side of the road? Imagine the bison jams those would create.

Then, too, there's the issue of increased human pressure on the park in the winter months. More crowding, more traffic, more litter, more noise. Would traffic be great enough that more lodges would have to open?

And if you plow the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, won't there be pressure to plow the East and South entrance roads as well? Would there be continued pressure to snowmobile in the park? Would folks want to see a snowmobile/snowcoach staging area of sorts near Fishing Bridge for over-the-snow forays into the Hayden Valley?

It certainly doesn't seem as if there is any one perfect solution. They all carry baggage.

Kurt, I don't disagree with that. I'm not for plowing; but when it's all said and done, I prefer fairness (for a lot of reasons).

One note on bison migration with the berms (which is a problem - have seen bison unable to navigate them before), I have also seen counter-evidence suggesting bison don't necessarily use the roads in their migration west than use them.

However, for a lot of reasons, making access easy in winter doesn't make a lot of sense (though the North part is definitely NOT crowded in winter even though anyone in the country can access it who can get out there). But, I've never understood why two polluting solutions are in place, and the only people who can access it are those who can afford it. A column in the West Yellowstone News this week in support of the plan notes from the longtime resident that he's only been to the park twice in the winter (and he lives in West Yellowstone!). I've just come to accept I'll never see anything outside the north and also the West edges on US 191 in the winter; even if I could afford it, I can't lend my support to this system.

So, like I said, the plowing Yellowstone group, which seems to be driven by locals in West Yellowstone, realizing that snowmobiling is not the way to save the town's economy, at least is moving the discussion into a largely ignored direction - plowing can be easily criticized; the fairness issue can't.

I don't know. Plowing seems like it would be a decent option, if and only if private vehicles were not allowed in.

After having worked next to the berm next to Mammoth Terraces for years (the divider between wheeled vehicles and over-snow travel) I can attest to the foolishness of some Yellowstone visitors. We would routinely have people drive over the berm. I passed a wheeled vehicle (thankfully 4WD) at Willow Park. One of my favorites drove a 2WD rental car over the berm, got about twenty feet, decided this wasn't going to work, and TRIED TO TURN AROUND IN THE ROAD!! Of course, they got stuck. They spoke no English, hence didn't understand the signs warning them. Could you imagine the carnage if a snowstorm struck midday with tourists all over the place? White out conditions alone would cause serious issues.

Perhaps routine bussing on plowed roads would solve the issue? Other national parks follow a similar plan. It wouldn't be expensive. It would provide for professional drivers who double as interpretive guides in winter ready vehicles to escort people around the park. Think about it...

As for the bison issue, it would not be difficult to dig trenches for them to get off the road and through five foot berms. As it is, they do it for themselves already with oversnow travel.

Oh, and one more minor thing. Jim, McDonald I take slight exception to referring to the GYC as a professional organization. I find their habit of referring to studies done back in the 90s to support their anti-snowmobile, pro-snowcoach opinion quite unprofessional. They choose to handpick data to support their opinion. Research done since the change to BAT snowmobiles as shown that snowcoaches and snowmobiles are on par in almost every issue, and often snowmobiles are better, though not by much. I have never minded the opinion that winter travel should be banned completely. But organizations like the GYC who continue to hold an anti-snowmobile pro-snowcoach opinion drive me crazy.

Well, as can be attested, I am no fan of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "Professional" for a grassrootsy guy like myself is not meant to be a positive adjective; by that, I meant that they are paid and funded to exist as such, and I think that often pre-determines the approach taken on a lot of issues.


The north side, Gardiner to Cooke is plowed all winter, with unrestricted public access, drive whatever you want at any time of day you want. The north side has the largest bison herd, the largest elk herd, in the park. There are NO appreciable conflicts with vehicles and from Tower to Cooke there is a lot more snow than the West side has, right now there is less than 8" of snow on the road in most places on the west side. Grooming for oversnow has to occur every night to cut the moguls and ruts, plowing is required only when it snows, and it hasnt snowed in almost two weeks. We close the park for three months to let snow build up for a few businesses with transportation monopolies, who now charge over $100 per person for a coach ride, $140 for a snowmobile, so they can have three months of busineess all to themselves. What has developed is a company store economy, my company bus, my company hotel, my company snowcoach, and back to the airport in my company bus. The rest of us are starving, the park service is complicent in the robbery, Yellowstone is for the wealthy now.

Indeed. Just a difference of definition.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide