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Would Year-Round Access To Old Faithful Compromise Yellowstone National Park's "Frontier"?

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, copyright Kurt Repanshek

Could you still enjoy relative solitude waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, or while exploring the Upper Geyser Basin along its boardwalk, if year-round access were provided to Old Faithful? Kurt Repanshek photos.

Editor's note: Yellowstone National Park officials once again are working on an environmental impact statement regarding winter-use in the park. There have been several calls for plowing of the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful to provide better access to that icon. Just recently the Yellowstone Business Roundtable, a pro-business group, called for that section to be plowed, as well as the route from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful. But what might that plowing create? Proponents say it would make a winter visit to Yellowstone more affordable to more of the general public. But how might the resulting increase in traffic transform Yellowstone, which already in some eyes is over-run by summer visitors?

In Dances With Wolves, Lt. John Dunbar requests a posting on "the frontier" because he "wants to see the frontier before it's gone."

It's not too difficult to put Yellowstone National Park, between the months of December and April, as being on the last frontier of the Lower 48. During those snowy, at-times frigid, months Yellowstone is a harsh, cold, inhospitable place, yet one of incredible beauty in large part because of that ruggedness and elemental encounters.

Granted, it's not a trackless wilderness that Kevin Costner's character faced. But in light of our shrinking natural landscape, that vestige of wildness that falls within a national park's borders, or within a national forest's, often is the best we can offer these days in terms of wild frontier.

While it very might well be relatively easy to maintain wheeled-access to Old Faithful year-round, as plowing proponents maintain, with apparently few environmental consequences, should we shrink what little "frontier" we have left in the National Park System? And in doing so, would we turn Yellowstone more towards an amusement park, where day trippers arrive en mass and stand in line at Norris or Old Faithful for snowmobile tours to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or West Thumb, enjoy a box lunch, some snapshots, and then launch a mass exodus out of the park?

How different would the Yellowstone-in-winter experience be if shuttle buses coursed through the park between West Yellowstone, Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Cooke City, Montana, just beyond the Northeast Entrance, on an hourly schedule? Critics say the Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park has lost its character because of over-crowding. Would this, too, be the fate of Yellowstone in winter if key segments of its interior roads were plowed?

Plowing proponents say opening the roads in winter would make a visit to Old Faithful during that season more affordable, that the current price tag is elitist. One can only assume that bus tickets would be less expensive than snowmobile or snowcoach tickets, which can quickly surpass $200 roundtrip.

While some pivot the question of winter-use in Yellowstone on the question of "access" to the park, that's really not the issue at all. Yellowstone is never closed. The road from Gardiner, Montana, outside the North Entrance, is kept open all the way across the park's northern range to Cooke City, Montana, year-round. U.S. 191, which bends and weaves from Bozeman, Montana, through the park to West Yellowstone, Montana, also is open year-round to wheeled vehicles. Over-snow traffic can enter the park from the South, West, and East entrances. And, of course, skiers and snowshoers technically can enter just about anywhere anytime (though they should get their backcountry permits first).

Central to the winter-use debate -- indeed, you probably can pare most everything else away as superfluous side trappings -- is reaching the Upper Geyser Basin with its thermal waterworks. Were Old Faithful and its supporting cast of geysers, hot springs, and gurgling fumaroles not to exist, would the decade-long dispute over how to manage winter-use in Yellowstone be with us? After all, there are plenty of national forests where you can ski, snowshoe, and snowmobile, yet only Yellowstone has Old Faithful.

Venture into Yellowstone's interior during winter and surrounding the geyser basins is a harsh, remote, largely inaccessible winterscape. Having ridden a snowmobile or in a snowcoach through snowstorms or 20-below Fahrenheit temperatures to stay in a lodge where life slows down when the sun goes down, to spend days exploring the thermal areas, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or navigating the Grand Loop in one of those over-snow vehicles, to perhaps hearing the ice shelf on Yellowstone lake groaning and grinding under pressure, is an experience not likely to be forgotten.

While the journey surely is part of any trip, the destination of Yellowstone in winter far surpasses the task of getting there. Trees near geysers quickly are covered not just in hoar-frost from the bitter cold, but also in layers of rime that result when the water and steam from the eruptions coat trunks and branches. In the lodgepole forests there's the occasional cracking and popping as trees struggle with the cold. Heavy snows bend trees into submission, and result in curious bends and twists in trunks stuck for so long in those positions throughout the park's long winters that the contortions become permanent. Steam from geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs you might not notice when the air temperature is in the 70s stands out under the cold like so much smoke curling skyward from campfires.

Among the latest groups that wants park officials to think long and hard about keeping open the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, as well as the one from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful, is the Yellowstone Business Partnership, whose mission is to unite "businesses dedicated to preserving a healthy environment and shaping a prosperous and sustainable future for communities in the Yellowstone-Teton region."

In its scoping comments (attached below)to the park's latest environmental impact statement on winter-use, the organization maintained that an "'All-Season' operating scenario," one in which winter visitors would ride public transportation through much of the park, not private vehicles, "would provide the greatest number of social, economic, and environmental benefits for visitors while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat."

Under this proposal, there still would be over-snow travel allowed from the South Entrance to Old Faithful, with guided snowmobile trips available from Norris, Canyon, and Old Faithful. And it also raises the prospect of developing a backcountry hut system between West Thumb and Old Faithful for skiers (and presumably snowshoers), one that "would be enhanced if Craig Pass was closed to all oversnow vehicles." (No mention, though, how that might impact snowmobiles or snowcoaches entering through the park's South Entrance and heading for Old Faithful.)

This proposal prompts a number of questions, though. What impact would it have on the lodging operations and their associated components (utilities, employees, sewage, supplies, etc.) at Old Faithful in terms of those additional months of use? While the YBP proposal says the park's highest elevations "would be preserved for winter wildlife security and to maintain their backcountry character," how might it impact the lower elevations where the park's elk, bison, and deer tend to congregate in winter, with their predators -- wolves -- in tow?

As far as "backcountry character," what about front-country character? Watching Old Faithful erupt in 10-degree weather with a handful of other park visitors is one type of front-country experience, as is walking the Upper Geyser Basin's boardwalk in relative solitude. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of others while the iconic geyser erupts against the background sound of growling snowmobiles catering to those day-trippers is another. And if Old Faithful and Norris are made more accessible in winter, would the park's crews be forced to be more attentive to icing on the geyser basins' boardwalks, conditions that currently are managed by nature?

At Winter Wildlands Alliance, which advocates "for human-powered snow sport enthusiasts and winter wildland conservationists" as well as to "ensure a safe, quiet, tranquil experience for every winter wildlands adventurer, now and always," Executive Director Mark Menlove isn't ready to endorse the YBP proposal.

"While the thought of a shuttle system with skier drop-offs sounds attractive, we believe the issue needs thorough scientific review. My sense is once the impacts are better analyzed that a plowing option will probably not be the panacea some are presenting it to be," said Mr. Menlove. "I can tell you we’d be very much opposed to plowing roads in order to simply move snowmobile and snowcoach staging areas inside the park instead of outside. Turning Old Faithful into a giant parking lot/staging area for snowmobiles and snowcoaches would certainly detract from the winter experience there and would not be in keeping with the park’s conservation mandate."

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees also worries about the increased visitor-load this proposal would have on Yellowstone during its most trying season.

"I understand the motivation in the business community to increase winter travel in Yellowstone -- it's good for the businesses in the gateway communities. I believe, however, that the park desperately needs the "down time" that the winter provides," said Rick Smith, chair of the group's Executive Council. "I always thought of it as a time for healing in the park, a time for its wildlife and vegetation to get a break from pressures of the summer season.

"I also think that plowing additional roads in the winter to facilitate this increased visitation also presents some challenges. I am worried about visitor safety on iced roads, the temptation to apply sand on these roads, the economic impacts on the park to buy additional equipment and pay for additional staff time to plow these roads. All this in addition to increased noise and pollution in what should be the quietest time in the park."

Plowing Yellowstone's roads has been an issue for decades, as Mike Yochim pointed out in his comprehensive book, Yellowstone and the Snowmobile: Locking Horns Over National Park Use. That the debate is ongoing directly impacts how we view nature.

Yellowstone long has been viewed as the crown jewel in the National Park System, and it's been said that if questionable uses and practices are allowed there, they can, and will, trickle down through the park system. With that in mind, if the Park Service agrees to clear the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful in winter in the name economics and access, should we also keep the Tioga Road through Yosemite National Park open year-round, as well as the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, the Teton Park Road in Grand Teton National Park, and the Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park?

Should we be concerned about the cascading impacts such a decision might unleash on this natural frontier, one that continually is shrinking. As Gerald E. Mernin, a Yellowstone ranger in 1984, said, "We are once again at a critical crossroads and are teetering on the brink -- we have the opportunity to help preserve uniqueness or to proliferate a watered down, carbon copy mediocrity we can find elsewhere."

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There is some kind of gentle magic found in the isolation of snowbound Yellowstone now. Snowcoaches and snowmobiles seem to have little impact under the current system. When the machines' engines are turned off, silence settles quickly over snowdrifts. It's not difficult to imagine for a while that we are alone in a grand place.

The argument that costs somehow turn winter activities as currently managed into something "elitist" simply doesn't stand argument. I've enjoyed snowcoach trips twice now and have found them very affordable -- even to an old man living on a rather meager blend of Social Security and teacher retirement. If there is anything "elitist" about it, it's that now access to the park is limited somewhat to those willing to brave the elements without their rolling bubble of "civilized" climate-controlled comfort.

Now, supreme silence reigns at Norris in mid winter. (At least between groups of relatively quiet four-cycle snowmachines.) I shudder at the thought of turning it into a staging area for snowmobile concessions.

Jerry Mernin is absolutely correct. But we don't just stand at that critical crossroad at only one particular moment. We stand there every moment given the intense political pressures that are constantly applied to our national parks.

Yellowstone should stay as it is and never be plowed to allow random wintertime viewing by the public. The expense of getting into the Old Faithful area is not too high. Our snowcoach shuttle service from Mammoth to Old Faithful a few years ago was comfortable, fun and entertaining as the driver pointed out sights that we probably would not have seen without his knowledge of the park. If people really want to go in the winter, they will find a way to do it. Keep the peaceful quiet that Yellowstone is known for. As life outside the park becomes more and more hectic, we need to have places to go where we can refresh, regenerate, by finding solitude. There are a multitude of other areas people can go to ride snowmobiles and see wildlife. I agree Yellowstone needs it's own time to heal from the impact of visitors during the summer. Keep the limits on snowmobiles. Keep the transportation limited to those few snowmobiles and the snowcoaches that presently traverse the park in winter. Let the park rest and heal in winter. Let the wildlife not be stressed anymore than they already are while trying to survive the harsh winter weather. Remember to "whisper words of wisdom: Let It be". Change is not necessarily better.

Why is it that man always seems to think they must have access to everything on this planet at all times? Some things are just meant to be left alone, even if it's just for a few months. I think this "call to action" to start plowing roads throughout the park in the middle of the winter is completely and utterly ridiculous. The fact that it would make it easier for tourists to visit is the exact reason I do not think it should be done. Not only does it put more financial and biological stress on an area that is already at the brink in some instances, but it simply destroys the natural wonder and excitement that the winter brings. So many of us put in the extra effort to visit places like Yellowstone in the winter because it's still sheltered from so many people. To me, it's amazing to enter the park without the hustle and bustle of the family SUV strolling throughout the park -- some things are just meant to be left alone.

To me, this is not really about the TRUE benefit of Yellowstone National Park, rather, this is a political and financial benefit for people. When are humans going to wake up and realize that the Earth is not just all about us. We must learn to share and compromise. How is the National Park Service suppose to preserve and protect a park that's constantly battered by the overuse of people?

Open the road to Old faithful and it will be very good for the gateway towns that have been bankrupted by the snowmobile ban. People are important also.

Plow those roads and there will still be plenty of wilderness for the young yet still maintain access for the old like me :D

I honestly believe the vast majority of human beings can be the most selfish species on the planet. They have become accustomed to believing that they can have whatever they want whenever they want it. They believe that whatever they take from this earth can and will be easily regenerated. No thought is given to preserving or protecting what nature has so freely and generously provided. Just keep taking until there is no more and keep disrupting nature until it stops giving. The idea of plowing the roads through Yellowstone during the winter months is self-serving and provides no benefit to the park whatsoever. If businesses are failing on the outskirts of the park, while I sympathize with them, in this day and age there are small businesses failing all over and 99.9% of them do not have a national park to fall back on to pull them out. While the thought of plowing the roads may appeal to some as a huge answer to their problems, what toll would it take on the park itself? In a time where the funds for our parks are being strained as is, just where is the money supposed to come from to plow the roads, or to feed and house the new string of visitor's? Are the towns on the outskirts hoping to benefit from this bounty because the park certainly won't! Where is the money going to come from to maintain the sidewalks, paths and boardwalks during the harsh winter months while these humans trudge around while choosing and being lured to stay outside of the park?

Not all change is good, nor is it often necessary. There are reasons why Yellowstone has been kept a basic wilderness during the winter months and there should be enough respect for the park itself to allow it to remain that way. The only thing that anyone who loves and cares about Yelowstone should be thinking about is what is best for the park and the park alone. Not what a few humans may desire for their own benefit, but what is best for the park. If it weren't for the park itself, there would basically be no need for some of the small towns on the outskirts. They'd be better off to think of ways to respect and preserve the very thing that has allowed them to exist instead of conjuring up ways to bleed it to death.

While the thought of plowing the roads may appeal to some as a huge answer to their problems, what toll would it take on the park itself? In a time where the funds for our parks are being strained as is, just where is the money supposed to come from to plow the roads, or to feed and house the new string of visitor's? Are the towns on the outskirts hoping to benefit from this bounty because the park certainly won't! Where is the money going to come from to maintain the sidewalks, paths and boardwalks during the harsh winter months while these humans trudge around while choosing and being lured to stay outside of the park?

Well - feeding and housing the visitors seems pretty straightforward. Right now there is a limited selection of lodging and dining options (Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel) open during the winter because of the low visitation. I could imagine keeping Old Faithful Lodge open to supplement what's currently open for winter. It's not as if the feeding and housing of visitors (campgrounds notwithstanding) is something that the NPS directly subsidizes; it usually is the job of private concessionaires like Xanterra. You go to the Geyser Grill at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and pay with cash or a credit card. If you have more visitors paying entrance fees, 80% of those fees go back to the park's general fund to pay for maintenance. As it is, people are visiting during the winter and renting or bringing their own snowshoes or skis, and the NPS is already clearing a limited number of pedestrian paths.

I've been to Yosemite during the winter when there was snow everywhere. Basically the roads got paved and that was it. Any kind of sidewalk clearing was performed by the concessionaires. The concessionaire provided groomed ski trails. I trudged through snow-covered trails that weren't cleared. I walked on a boardwalk over a meadow that wasn't cleared of snow. Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village, and the Ahwahnee Hotel were open for lodging, although it takes a brave person to stay in a Curry Village tent cabin when it's 20 deg F overnight. Visitation was nowhere near the peak, so a lot of the concessions were closed.

It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination. I doubt the idea is to turn Yellowstone into a place where the crowds and mobility are the same as their peak summer months. The basic idea is to plow the roads such that people aren't dependent on a rather expensive snowcoach system, and can arrive or leave without having to be tied to the rigid schedule of a concessionaire's transportation system. If anyone wants to visit during the winter, it's still pretty obvious that it's going to take more effort that a lot of people won't be interested in expending. One is going to have to be clothed for the winter conditions, carry chains (and maybe use winter tires), and be prepared to traverse snow covered paths.

I for one would love to take my family to see Old Faithful during the winter. I'm not sure if that would mean taking the snowcoach or a winter road trip in the car. If they are paving, it might just be the latter.

I think Yellowstone should be open to vehicles in the winter. We have been to Yellowstone in the winter on a snowcoach. We would go more often if we could drive in.


I'm not sure it's as straightforward as you outline. For starters, I'm not sure the Old Faithful Lodge is suited for winter operations. The inn is not; that's why it's not open.

Plus, if you bring in more people, you need more staff. Does the housing exist? Again, I'm not sure.

Beyond the logistics, what about the winter character? How would it be changed by plowing and bringing more folks to Old Faithful? Should every national park setting be open year-round to wheeled vehicles? Wouldn't the Yosemite Valley have much more character if it were a little harder to reach in winter and without the current traffic loads?

If we can keep the roads to Old Faithful open year-round, why not do the same with the roads to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon?

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