- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. (AP) - Three years into a frosty experiment in a finger-numbing laboratory, Randy Roberson thinks he’s identified the future of winter snow coach travel in Yellowstone National Park - big, fat black rubber tires.

“We haven’t found any negatives yet,” Roberson said.

This small community on the western edge of Yellowstone has been through a litany of challenges over the past 15 years as the Park Service has worked to place greater controls on winter travel. Snowmobile use has been cut, with most riders now requiring guides to enter. Snow coaches - bus and van-like vehicles that can travel over snow - must meet stricter exhaust and sound guidelines.

Roberson, a former auto mechanic who now owns Yellowstone Vacations in West Yellowstone, believes his testing of fat-tired snow coaches could be the new wave of winter travel for a number of reasons: they are easier to drive, use about three times less fuel, are 14 decibels quieter than tracked coaches, cost less to operate, need less maintenance, can travel faster and on a variety of surfaces, including pavement, by increasing or lowering the tires’ air pressure.

Low air pressure - about 6 psi - spreads the tire’s footprint for heavy snow. The tires can be aired up to 30 psi for travel on pavement.

“Randy has done some amazing things,” said Christina Mills, Yellowstone Park’s outdoor recreation planner. “He’s been invaluable in this process, and has spent a lot of time thinking about how to make snow coaches cleaner and quieter.”

But she said the Park Service has to consider the viability of snow coaches with tires based on at least four criteria: their safety, that they have no greater impact on the resource than tracked vehicles, that they operate well in all conditions and - probably the most unique condition - that they preserve the distinct look and feel of winter touring in Yellowstone.

“Travel in Yellowstone in the winter is a pretty unique experience,” Mills told The Billings Gazette (https://bit.ly/1OKq9ff). “There are certain vehicles that people associate with travel in Yellowstone historically,” such as the old Bombardier snow coaches that have tracks on the back and skis on the front.

“We want someone to see it differently than ‘I can drive my Tacoma into the park,’” she added.

Although Roberson’s experiments are new to Yellowstone, he said other cold-weather vehicles in places as remote as Iceland, the Antarctic and Russia have been pursuing the same track.

“Ten years ago I proposed this to the Park Service, and they said no,” Roberson said.

But now the agency is listening, and has even experimented with fat tires on some of its own vehicles. Mills said the agency’s testing is still in its pilot phase as it tries to find a tire size that works in all conditions. The biggest concern Park Service operators have is whether the large tires will work well in deep snow, she said. Unfortunately, Yellowstone hasn’t had a heavy snow year since testing began.

Although Roberson began with what some may know as swamper or mud-bogging tires used on vehicles modified for four-wheel drive competitions, this year he’s taken the tires to the next level. The biggest tires he’s running are 28 inches wide and 46 inches tall. The smallest are 20 inches wide and 44 inches tall.

Roberson found the tires being used on agricultural equipment to soften their footprint on farm fields.

“We did not see these tires four or five years ago,” he said, referring to them as agricultural flotation tires. “These tires are a great match for what we’re trying to do in Yellowstone.”

Last year the park had to close its winter season early because of a lack of snow. Could tired snow coaches be a way to ensure the continuation of the season if winters become shorter because of a warming climate?

“We’re not sure we can say that for certain yet,” Mills said.

Some snow coach customers are echoing Roberson’s praise for the fat-tire coaches.

For 27 years Deborah White has lived with Yellowstone National Park located out her back door in West Yellowstone. But she had never visited the park in winter on a snow coach until recently, when her sister was visiting.

“This is awesome,” she said. “I love Randy’s coaches with the big windows and big tires. Most people I’ve talked to love it, too.”

Sitting a row behind White in the snow coach was retiree Michael Booker of Gadsden, Ala. On his last visit to Yellowstone in the winter he rode in a tracked snow coach.

“This is a lot nicer, a lot smoother and a lot quieter,” he said.

The snow coach’s driver, Ryan Edmiston, said there’s no comparison between driving a tracked coach compared to one with tires.

“Mattracks are pretty barbaric compared to these tires,” he said of one of the most popular rubber track systems.

Kim Baird, a veteran driver for See Yellowstone Tours, said she’s driven every type of winter vehicle used to enter the park - from snowmobiles to Bombardiers to Mattracks - and she likes the fat-tired coaches the best.

“Even just the quietness, sometimes you forget you’re in an over snow vehicle,” she said.

The only downside she has found is that if the snow coach driver drifts to the edge of the road into deeper snow, it’s easy to get stuck. Also, on rutted roads the vans can get pretty bouncy on the balloon-like tires. But those are small inconveniences compared to having a track break, which she said one time happened twice in the same day.

“And they just look cool,” Baird said. “I want a pair of these for my Jeep, and I’m ready to roll.”

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, https://www.billingsgazette.com

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