- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

BILLINGS, Mont. — The search for an environmentally friendly snow coach that will appeal to winter visitors at Yellowstone National Park has officials looking to the past for some inspiration.

A concept bus the park is testing offers a resemblance to the yellow buses that carried tourists in the early 1900s.

However, the new bus also could be fitted with special tracks and run in winter. If tests prove successful, it could become another sightseeing alternative in a park where limits will be imposed on snowmobiles beginning this year.

The goal is to develop an all-season machine attractive enough to lure tourists from recreational vehicles and cars that cause traffic jams at wildlife sightings, yet efficient enough to help reduce pollution levels, particularly in winter.

“We want visitors to enjoy the park,” says John Sacklin, Yellowstone’s chief of planning. “But we recognize, as visitation continues to increase, it may be difficult to accommodate all visitors in the traditional ways they have come into the park.”

Traditionally, they have driven. Yellowstone is considered a drive-through park; its five gates offer access to Western towns and wild places in three states, and often, park officials say, tourists don’t enter and exit through the same gate.

Officials aren’t interested in changing that, necessarily. They want to enhance the visitor experience — reducing noise and traffic and providing park information that’s not simply tossed in the back seat — by offering shuttle service to high-traffic tourist stops or hiking hot spots in small buses that can be powered by cleaner-burning alternative fuels, such as propane or ethanol blends.

They also want the buses to have a specific look and feel that will entice some of the park’s nearly 3 million annual visitors from their vehicles for at least part of their trips. The design of the concept bus tested this summer calls to mind the touring buses that park officials say ran in Yellowstone until the 1950s.

The concept bus features a roll-back top and TV screen that could be used to display wildlife photos, park highlights being discussed by an interpreter or, perhaps, local accommodations, says Dick Rief, vice president of marketing and sales for Heart International, which is involved in the development and eventual manufacturing of the buses. It also is handicap-accessible with room for 15 or so persons.

“We took styling cues from the old yellow bus, which had a convertible top,” he says. “We wanted it to look friendly, to have that nostalgic appeal, so people would want to get in.”

The concept bus was brought into the park for the first time this summer, but mostly just for show.

Comments from riders were largely positive, Mr. Rief says, though “minor” changes are still likely.

This winter, park officials expect to test the concept bus with the winter tracks attached to see how it performs and whether visitors like it. If all goes well, one or more final versions of the all-season $100,000 bus could be working by next summer.

Park officials say a new-generation snow coach is an important piece of the region’s winter-use plan, which aims to ease noise, pollution and adverse effects on wildlife and human health, particularly the health of park employees at Yellowstone’s congested west gate.

Snowmobiles have been allowed in the park for 40 years and snow coaches for 48, Mr. Sacklin says. If all goes well, the bus on tracks could become a new-style snow coach, he says.

“When I look at the future, I see there will be significant differences in the way the park operates in the winter,” he says. “Snowmobiles and snow coaches will be dramatically cleaner and quieter than those we’ve been used to over the last 10 years, and that will be huge.”

Mr. Sacklin believes the bus, if done correctly, could bring new tourists to the area or entice others to stay a bit longer.

“Often, when people think of getting on a bus, it is simply looked at as a means of getting from one place to another,” he says. “With tour guides on the bus, we would have the vehicle really be a part of the experience.”

National Park Service officials say alternative means of transportation, such as shuttles and trains, have been successful in parks.

In Acadia National Park, for example, more than 1 million riders have taken a bus in the five years since a system was implemented, says Deputy Superintendent Len Bobinchock.

The propane-powered buses run between the park and local communities on the coast of Maine. They have helped ease traffic a bit, but Mr. Bobinchock says he would like to have the program expanded if funds become available.

The idea of partnerships as a way to share costs and benefits has been discussed among officials at Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks and nearby towns.

Cam Hugie, Grand Teton’s chief of professional services, says the park would like to work with the town of Jackson, Wyo., and Teton County on a transit arrangement. Park officials expect to have a draft of Grand Teton’s transit plan soon, he says.

“We’re trying to be proactive and look down the road,” Mr. Hugie says.

Back at Yellowstone, Mr. Sacklin says the buses, though not meant to replace other vehicles, could help change the way the park and region are seen — and understood.

“Providing alternative options for people to tour the park, to see features or sights they otherwise may not be able to, makes sense to us,” he says.

• `• •

Information about visiting Yellowstone National Park in winter is available from www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm or by calling 307/344-7381.


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