Gateway business communities around Yellowstone National Park are as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs - and who could blame them?
Last year, winter tourism businesses - particularly those connected with snowmobiles - were caught in a vortex of conflicting judicial rulings that kept Yellowstone Park snowmobilers away in droves.
There's no doubt that the ongoing snowmobile controversy has impacted winter visitor numbers and local businesses in the Greater Yellowstone area.
But damage to local economies is harder to prove. In fact, tax data from West Yellowstone, Cody and Jackson indicate that tax revenues in these three economic areas have risen, despite catastrophic drops in snowmobile numbers.
In prior studies, the Park Service concluded that: "Even with the phase-out of snowmobiles, economic impacts to local communities in the 5-county area have been found to be negligible to minor." The Park Service also determined that economic impacts across the five gateway counties would be less than one percent, could reach 8.5 percent in West Yellowstone, but only in the short-term, and in other gateway communities such as Jackson and Cody, due to their "size and diversity," predicted there would be "no measurable economic impact."
Last year, according to Park Service figures in the Environmental Assessment document, the number of snowmobiles passing through Yellowstone's West Entrance averaged 166 per day. That's down from a ten-year average of 538.
Yet by comparing July '03-June '04 with July '02-June '03 resort tax collections, the overall West Yellowstone economy gained by five percent, thanks to a strong summer tourism.
However, according to Mary Sue Costello, West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce Director, tax revenue statistics can be somewhat misleading.
"Those figures show when the tax was collected, not when it was generated by visitors," she said, "so it is hard to say what the data is really telling us."
She said summer has always been the dominant economic driver for West Yellowstone, and that downturns in snowmobile visitors have been "like a diet," forcing owners to trim staff or management, leading to some families leaving the community.
The Chamber invested heavily in advertising to the cross-country skiing market, with "world class" cross-country ski trails.
"We didn't see an appreciable increase in cross-country skiers," said Costello.
When snowmobilers around the country hear that Yellowstone Park is closed to them, or there is a severe cap on numbers, they don't realize that there are still huge snowmobile trail systems outside the park, Costello added.
"Some of the confusion comes from our name," she said. Many people think West Yellowstone is inside the park.
She said the recent ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer should help by closing the door on banning snowmobiles from the park. She's still waiting to see what the National Park Service comes up with as a winter use plan. She's also waiting to see how U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., rules on a Fund for Animals lawsuit that would ban trail grooming and thus end public access to the parks for snowmobiles and snowcoaches alike.
"I can't believe that anyone would want that," Costello said.
Similarly, hotel and motel sales/use tax receipts in Teton and Park counties were up significantly. Park County experienced a 26.1 percent increase during the winter months of January, February and March, compared to the same three months the year before. Teton County was up 4.8 percent from the same period the previous year.
Gene Bryan, the executive director of the Cody Chamber of Commerce in Park County, said all the legal confusion over snowmobiling in the parks has hurt snowmobile-oriented shops. "We have two commercial operations that provide guides and rent machines," he said. He readily acknowledged that winter recreation around Cody is fairly small compared to other gateway economies, because nearby wilderness areas limit where snowmobiles can go outside Yellowstone.
Bryan credited a Wyoming Republican convention and a dude ranch convention in Cody for improving tax revenues so much.
Steve Duerr, Bryan's counterpart at the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, said "we lost Christmas" in all the legal confusion last December, and that the town had been hurt when snowmobilers stayed away.
Duerr credited two marketing campaigns that helped that quarter post a gain. One campaign was to encourage snowmobilers to explore the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail, he said. The other was an aggressive campaign by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to increase the number of skiers who flew into Jackson.
"This is overly simplistic," Duerr said, "but Jackson has an infrastructure that can handle 60,000 visitors a day in the summer, but in the winter, we have 8,000 visitors per day. We have a lot of excess capacity."
By the Numbers
Since a 2000 Clinton administration rule proposed to phase-out snowmobiles from Greater Yellowstone parks, snowmobile numbers in the parks rose briefly (2001-2002), then plummeted dramatically in the past two seasons.
If you consider the winter season of 2000-2001 as the most recent, relatively "normal" season for the Greater Yellowstone parks, the winter visitor count has been in steep decline ever since, according to National Park Service statistics which tally the mode of winter visitation upon entering the park.
The 2000-2001 season saw 84,473 snowmobile visitors entering Yellowstone - not quite as many as the 88,102 who entered the park via automobile. That year, the total number of winter visitors was 184,188.
The 2001-2002 season was generally acknowledged as a disaster for the tourism industry, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. by terrorists. Yet while the total number of winter visitors to Yellowstone fell to 144,490, snowmobile visits jumped up to 87,206.
In 2002-2003, the trend of winter visitors to Yellowstone declined with 112,741 total visitors and 60,406 snowmobile entries.
Last winter, the total number of visitors was 85,984 with 30,437 snowmobile entries.
Over those four seasons, entries into the park by auto, RV, bus and snowmobile all declined, yet there were more visitors by snowcoach and by cross-country skiing into the park. From 2000-2001 to last winter, snowcoach numbers rose from 11,683 to 14,823. Cross-country skiers entering the park rose from 389 to 438.
According to the National Park Service, winter visitors enter Yellowstone Park primarily on snowmobiles (62 percent), then by autos and buses (29 percent) and also as snowcoach passengers (9 percent). Only a rugged 1 percent enter on cross-country skis, but 20 percent of all Yellowstone visitors participate in cross-country skiing while in the park.
Park statisticians note that the West Entrance is busiest with 48 percent of winter visitors since the winter of 1989-1990. The North Entrance is next highest at 31 percent, followed by the South Entrance at 19 percent and the East Entrance at 3 percent.
According to research by the Park Service, the West Entrance is dominated by snowmobile passengers (89 percent) and snowcoach passengers (11 percent).
The North Entrance is dominated by visitors arriving by automobile (92 percent), followed by snowcoach passengers (5 percent) and snowmobile passengers (3 percent). The North Entrance is the only Yellowstone entrance accessible to wheeled vehicles during the winter. The East Entrance has dramatically declined in snowmobile traffic, from 4,183 in 2000-2001 to 1,006 in 2003-2004. Snowmobiles account for 88 percent of visitor traffic in the winter, with skiers constituting 11 percent.
Visitors to the South Entrance used snowmobiles as the primary means of transportation (85 percent), followed by snowcoaches (15 percent).
Further south in the Grand Teton National Park (including the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail) and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway, snowmobile numbers have been all over the place in the past four years. Snowmobiling on the Parkway plunged from 31,011 in 2000-2001 to 9,217 last winter. Skiing in Grand Teton rose from 4,774 to an estimated 8,000 last winter.