Snowmobiles The NPS Fears


suby-in-snow.jpgLet’s get this right out front: I drive a Sabaru, (and am going to buy another one,) and I prefer to walk or ski rather than ride a snowmobile.

That, however, doesn’t make me blind to the changing technology in the world. Nor does it make me believe that National Park Service regulations for winter access to Yellowstone, should be promulgated for yesterday when tomorrow is almost here. As with motorcycles and personal water craft, the two cycle snowmobile engine will fade as better four cycle technology is developed.

The planners in Yellowstone have lost sight of time. mcgill-snowmobile-prototype.jpgThey are too busy letting the whiners, and the snowmobile industry dictate their thinking. They have abrogated their responsibility for managing clean quiet access to Yellowstone to the litigation process. They are reactive rather than proactive, and they cannot see past the smog in Mammoth.

giant-snow-coach-russs-buses.jpgTheir cry for fewer snowmobiles is based on dirty and loud first generation machines that are rapidly disappearing from the transportation landscape. The real concern in Yellowstone is pollution and noise. If the short sighted planners play a numbers game based on old perceptions and old technology, and limit access to a certain number of snowmobiles they ignore the future. industrialsnowcoach.jpgBy playing the numbers game they open the door to more buses, vans and tanks. No matter how clean these mass people movers are – more vehicles mean more noise and pollution. And, an ever-less personal encounter with the wonders of Yellowstone.

polindy500.jpgThe National Park Service has even sponsored it’s own demonstration project in the electric snowmobile arena. The firm of SnoLectric, in Midway Utah, entered into an 18 month cooperative agreement to explore the possibilities of an electric snowmachine. The NPS supplied the Polaris Indy 500 for the project. raser-snomo.jpgThe National Park Service has, seemingly,  dropped their interest in this project. However, Raser Technologies, (also in Utah,) has continued this free enterprise effort with a snowmobile that is 618 times more quiet than an internal combustion snowmobile.

As recently as March 21, 2006, Jack Evanoff, the park’s environmental manager said: “This has meant a tremendous amount to Yellowstone National Park; snowmobile emissions at the park, which have been at the heart of a major controversy, have plummeted in the seven years since the first Clean Snowmobile Challenge.” He was referring to the progress fostered by mcgill_snow_electric.jpgThe SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge at the Keweenaw Research Center and the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Mechanics at Michigan Tech. Yet The “official park” continues to ignore the progress and continues to plan for the past machines, and their ills.

The Montana Department Of Environmental Quality has produced a fact sheet and synopsis of the developments in the area of electric snowmobiles. It is an excellent starting place for gathering information.

A time, in the very near future, will come when snowmobiles are cleaner per passenger mile than giant buses and vans. If this is not anticipated NOW, there will be another round of lawsuits, in the future, that use my tax money to develop a plan that should have already been enacted.

The sensible approach, (though widely ignored,) is to establish maximum levels of noise and maximum amounts of pollution for any given day, week, month, season, year. This approach guarantees that Yellowstone’s environments and its ecology will be protected. This approach also can be used to provide an incremental increase in the restrictions as technology improves.

los-angeles-smog.jpgThere is good precedent for this approach. Los Angeles, and all of California have used this approach to reduce emissions from vehicles. The effort was far sighted and started in the 60’s. The early establishment of the Air Pollution Control District (APCD) and a plan to reduce exhaust emissions over time has impacted a far greater area than just the Los Angeles Basin. It has been the single most important force in nudging the automobile industry toward cleaner vehicles. Big market = Big results. The same concept should be applied to Yellowstone.

Rather than vehicle numbers, the planners and modelers should be concentrating on improving the air shed in Yellowstone for the future. As was done in Los Angeles, progressively more stringent regulations should be factored in over time. As in Los Angeles, we can expect screaming and shouting and law suits. And, as in Los Angeles, compliance will be achieved if the whiners want to enter the market.

As I have mentioned previously, the NPS has got it dead wrong. Their paradigm is dead wrong and it’s time to change it. The thought that: A), over the snow travel is the best access is probably wrong, B), numbers of allowed vehicles without measurable emissions and noise, standards is certainly wrong, and C), technology will remain the same for the foreseeable future is dead wrong! It’s time for a change in paradigm.

The DEIS is out and the time for reasonable citizens to comment is now. A review of the facts is hard to come by, however the National Science Foundation-funded DLESE program has a digital resource for education that is straight froward and complete. You can read the arguments in the National Parks Traveler, Neo Commons, and Yellowstone Park News. The NPS has several documents that are referenced in these articles.



There are very clean snowmobiles. There are snowmobiles that are quieter than raucous cross country skiers. In fact, there are snowmobiles that produce zero emissions and are quieter than normal skiers.

Tree was the first environmental group mcgilteam.jpgto even acknowledge the new sleds. They posted a small note in January 2005 about the McGill University Electric Snowmobile Team. The McGill team is just one of several teams that have answered the SAE challenge to produce a better, (including cleaner and quieter,) snowmobile. At least professional engineers understand the problem. [As of the middle of last month the newest machine will do 60km/h – and very clean and quiet – see movie]
The McGill snowmobile was Canada’s second electric snowmobile. monte-snow-elec.jpgThe first was designed and developed by Monte Gisborn and is a fine example of individual initiative and enterprise. He calls the machine “Sk-E-Doo.” A second is on the way from this brilliant electrical design engineer.

snoscoot.jpgThere are other approaches that are also near the zero pollution level and are quieter than skiers. One is the hybrid Snowscooter. A very small and very efficient over the snow people mover. It is rapidly gaining a following with people that don’t need 100 throbbing horses between their legs.

There old-days-at-old-faithful.jpgare other efforts under way to improve the snowmobile. The industry is moving, (albeit too slowly,) toward a cleaner four stroke fleet. The USFS has begun to address the concerns of noise and emission pollution, and even some family oriented snowmobile clubs are beginning to appreciate the transportation aspect of the vehicle. It is not now, and never was a 100% recreational vehicle.

Indeed, calling winter access to Yellowstone merely a recreational activity demeans the experience. This not so subtle tyranny of words is not lost on the opponents of the snowmobile. They call the snowcoach and the snow van, and the snow bus a means of transportation while they call snowmobiles recreational vehicles.



The Society of Automotive Engineers has conducted a aclean1.jpgchallenge to produce cleaner, quieter, and better snowmobiles for about 5 years now. There are significant results that have come from this effort. Some of the sleds are electric, some are very clean and turbo assisted, and others are on the drawing board.

Please do not interpret this post to mean that electric snowmobiles are the answer to winter access in Yellowstone. Rather this is just an example of the kind of thinking that explores alternate solutions to noise and pollution problems. In the not too distant future there will be cleaner and quieter snowmobiles. Without standards to compare them to the NPS will face another round of lawsuits.

The sites of the teams competing in the clean snowmobile challenge are listed below. These folks are inspired by both the technical and the environmental challenge. More power to them!

SAE INTERNATIONAL Introduction Page,
Ecole de Technologie Superieure Team Page,
McGill Electric Snowmobile Team Page,
Michigan Tech Clean Snowmobile Team Page,
Minnesota State University Clean Snowmobile Team Page,
Utah State University Clean Snowmobile Team Page,
University of Wisconsin SAE Snowmobile Team Page.

These are the sleds that the NPS fears. copy-of-snowmobile-zero.jpgThey demonstrate that measurable standards produce measurable results. The NPS, (and for that matter whiners of all stripes,) prefer a simple numbers game to a plan that will protect the park and it’s visitors for the long term.

Of course, when a snowmachine that is measurably cleaner and quieter than the buses, and vans, and tanks, arrives; you can bet your bottom dollar that there will still be people ranting against the past instead of applauding the progress. To where has the positive approach to problem-solving disappeared?


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