Until the 1970s, most West Yellowstone business owners would board up their windows, lock the doors and travel elsewhere as summer tourists drove away from the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
“When I started, the whole town closed down except for the Stagecoach Inn,” said Clyde Seely, longtime West Yellowstone businessman and owner of Three Bear Lodge.
Back then, the census counted about 500 residents in West Yellowstone. It seemed almost a fairy tale existence to outside visitors. Buildings were buried under several feet of mounded snow and tunnels had to be dug down to front doors. Those who stayed for the winters were a hardy people with a large wood pile, and underpowered early generation snowmobiles were a necessity to simply get around.
Then snowmobiling throttled onto the recreation scene and everything changed.
“I was probably the first one to begin packaging Yellowstone trips in winter in 1971,” Seely said.
He started out renting 15 snowmobiles and personally took a plane to Minneapolis to solicit customers. That’s how the self-described “snowmobiling capital of the world” was inauspiciously born.
Over the next 30 years, visitation grew annually as more people took up the motorsport and word circulated about seeing bison, elk and geysers while riding into a ghostly yet stunningly beautiful winter wonderland.
“Eventually, 10 more hotels were built to accommodate winter business,” Seely said. “It changed the whole winter economy of the town.”
Then, as if at the flick of a switch, everything changed. The National Park Service was sued to restrict winter use to protect wildlife. In 2000, the agency decided to rid Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks of snowmobiles out of concern for the area’s air quality, wildlife and the noise the machines created.
Sued over that decision by snowmobile advocates, a winter planning process began that would stretch over the next decade as the Park Service crafted plans that were rejected by judges and challenged by lawsuits. Uncertainty became the norm.
“It’s been a long, hard negotiating battle,” Seely said. “Finally, now the park has arrived at a plan with some balance. Yes, use is way down, but it’s backed up by science.”
What’s more, the plan is set for the next 10 years – no more annual surprises for business-people like Seely.
Despite years of tense negotiations and disappointments, Seely is once again able to look to the future. At the age of 75, he admitted that he may not be around another 10 years, but the businesses that he has established will continue after he’s gone.
To ensure that, this year he purchased Yellowstone Alpen Guides, another West Yellowstone business that offered snowcoach tours into the park, as well as guided cross-country skiing adventures.
“People often asked me, ‘Why on Earth did you jump into this at your age?’ ” he said. “I don’t feel old. And what I’ve worked all of my life for I don’t want to sell off. I’m contributing to the future and stability of the town.
“I love Yellowstone. I love West Yellowstone.”
The purchase was also necessary because under the new winter-use plan, Seely wasn’t awarded a snowcoach/snowmobile contract despite his years in the business. He was one of four snowmobile tour operators and dealers denied a contract in West Yellowstone.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “But I just had to pick up the pieces and go on.
“I don’t give up easily.”
Having a winter tour contract in Yellowstone is critical to his business, he said, noting that people like to combine where they stay with a snowcoach or snowmobile tour of Yellowstone Park.
“Secondly, I’ve always been impressed with the performance of the Bombardier snowcoaches” that were operated by Alpen Guides’ owner Scott Carsley, Seely said.
A history buff, Seely said he wanted to see the old Bombardier snowcoaches, which were the first to enter the park in 1955, continue to operate – although now they have been modified to be quieter and less polluting. The Bombardier features skis on the front and tanklike tracks in the rear, much like a snowmobile.
“There’s something unique about the allure of these Bombardiers and the way we took people into the park originally,” he said. “The way you see Yellowstone is part of the experience.”
Like the Bombardiers, Seely has been visiting Yellowstone in winter for a long time, constantly adapting to changes, modifying and upgrading to stay relevant. Things are bound to change again, but Seely’s basic philosophy is built to endure.
“I believe we should carry into the future the things of the past and build on those.”