- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — West Yellowstone business owner David McCray hasn’t felt optimistic for the past two winters, but he and others in this tiny gateway to Yellowstone National Park are full of hope this year.

Snow is on the ground, early bookings look promising, and when Yellowstone opens for its winter season Wednesday, it will be the first time in three years that snowmobile tourists aren’t playing by a new set of rules in the park.

“This year is normal, and that takes a ton of pressure off us,” said Mr. McCray, who already is booked with snowmobile tours the first few days of the winter season.

However, that continuity may be short-lived, as the National Park Service is working on a new long-range plan for winter use that is likely to restart the debate about whether the machines should be allowed in the park.

Businesses are feeling the financial effects of the court challenges and rule changes that created confusion in 2003 and a season shortened by poor snowfall last year.

Now, many business leaders in West Yellowstone are working to diversify the wintertime economy of a town that once billed itself as the “snowmobile capital of the world.”

Greater emphasis has been placed on mass-transit snowcoaches, a mode of transportation some conservationists favor over snowmobiles; promotion of cross-country ski areas; and attracting snowmobilers to trails just outside the park.

“This is a very different town than it was three or five winters ago,” said Marysue Costello, executive director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

For years, snowmobile access to the park was nearly unfettered and the hum of the machines reverberated through West Yellowstone.

But that ended before the 2003-04 winter, when the Park Service moved from a Clinton-era plan that called for phasing out snowmobiles in favor of snowcoaches and decided instead to limit the numbers and types of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

Park officials defended that as a balance between recreational use and the protection of park resources, but environmentalists sued and, on the eve of that winter season’s opening, a federal judge set aside the new plan.

Rules that took effect last year limit to 720 the number of snowmobiles allowed into Yellowstone each day, and they must join commercially guided tours. The machines must be cleaner and quieter than earlier models.

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