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Is there another winter playground out there?

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Friday, November 24, 2000 MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL

As expected, the National Park Service has decided to close two of the nation's premier national parks - Yellowstone and Grand Teton - to snowmobiles. Snowmobile use will be phased out by the end of 2003.

The decision follows many years of debate and thorough environmental and economic analyses. It comes as no surprise, since public sentiment and the Park Service's inclinations have been long apparent.

Don't be surprised to see this matter drag on in the courts or Congress for a while. But this is one slippery slope even the most powerful snowmobile isn't likely to climb.

The decision portends change for winter tourism in the Yellowstone region. Expect park visitation to decline significantly at first, but don't be surprised to see a new type of winter tourism develop over time. Sans snowmobiles, the park may well prove more attractive to people who aren't into motor sports.

This decision will, no doubt, be felt by the snowmobiling Mecca of West Yellowstone. At least over the near-term. But closing the parks to snowmobiles may also translate into new opportunities - and maybe challenges - for other communities in the Northern Rockies.

Snomobilers aren't likely to simply park their machines or abandon their pastime once the gates of Yellowstone swing shut. Instead, they'll cast about for some other places to play.

Surely there's someplace in this big, sprawling region where large-scale snowmobile use is appropriate and welcome. West Yellowstone's loss could prove to be other communities' gains. No, they may not be places where you can weave past bison and geysers, but they could well be a places with offsetting advantages - more and better trails, better facilities, more diversity of terrain. While large numbers of fast, powerful motor vehicles must be well managed to avoid problems and conflicts, the possibilities and opportunities may be substantially greater outside the national parks, which have fairly specific and rigid mandates.

There will be people inclined to bemoan this decision by the Park Service. Let them. But others shouldn't hesitate to take advantage of the opportunities this decision creates. Success often comes down to adapting, rather than averting change.

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