Vrooming Into Yellowstone

Nicholas Kristof thinks “humans trump the bison and moose.” Two excerpts from his op-ed piece in The New York Times:

Yellowstone National Park, a wonderland at any time of year, is particularly dazzling in winter, when the geysers shoot out of snowfields and the elk wear mantles of frost. I took one of my sons to visit last year and learned two things that I don’t believe most environmentalists realize.

First, in winter Yellowstone is virtually inaccessible except by snowmobile. Cars are banned (except for one small part of the park), and Yellowstone is so big that snowshoeing and cross-country skiing offer access only to the hardiest backpackers, who can camp in snow and brutal cold for days at a time.

Second, a new generation of snowmobiles is available with four-stroke engines, not two-stroke. These machines cut hydrocarbon emissions by 90 percent — and noise by 50 percent. …

As an avid backpacker who loves the outdoors, I think the environmental movement should be trying to get more people out into the wild. That’s why I’d like to see the Bush administration’s compromise upheld, so Americans can continue to enjoy Yellowstone in winter. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers would, of course, still have all of backcountry Yellowstone for themselves, with no machines for many miles around.

Granted, snowmobiles are an intrusion. But so are cars. In the summer, we accept a trade-off: we admitted about 965,000 people last July to Yellowstone, with all the noise, garbage, public toilets and disruption that entailed, knowing that the park would be less pristine but that more people would get a chance to enjoy it. That seems a fair trade.

The philosophical question is the purpose of conservation: Do we preserve nature for its sake, or ours?

My bias is to put our interests on top. Thus I’m willing to encroach on wilderness to give Americans more of a chance to get into the wild. That’s why we build trails, for example — or why we build roads into Yellowstone.