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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you want to find a place that's quiet and serene, you could do worse than to travel to Yellowstone National Park in winter.

Mr. MICHAEL SCOTT (Greater Yellowstone Coalition): People's natural tendency in wintertime when they enter Yellowstone is to lower their voices, talk almost in a whisper, and go very gently and very respectfully into the park.

INSKEEP: That's Michael Scott with the group called the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which is a group that's concerned because sometimes that serenity is interrupted by snowmobiles. It seems the Parks Service are always debating on what to do about the machines and right now is considering requests from environmental groups on whether to ban them.

NPR's Jeff Brady went to the small town of West Yellowstone, Montana, to discover why snowmobilers are unwilling to give up their sport.

(Soundbite of snowmobile engine)

JEFF BRADY: West Yellowstone looks a lot like those other towns on the outskirts of national parks. Should you desire a shot glass to commemorate your visit or some saltwater taffy, you can get it here. And if you want a snowmobile for going in the park…

Mr. JOHN GASPEDERICK(ph) (Guide, Yellowstone National Park): Can I get all drivers gather around up front here, please.

BRADY: Everyone gets a guide, too. Those are the park rules. Ours is John Gaspederick. His job was to keep the nine snowmobiles on our group on the road and away from the animals.

Mr. GASPEDERICK: It has an automobile motor in it, so all you have to do is turn the key…

(Soundbite of snowmobile engine)

Mr. GASPEDERICK: …and it sparks right up, just like your car, literally, has the same motor as the Geo Metro.

BRADY: Gaspederick points out these snowmobiles are a lot cleaner than the old ones. You won't see any blue smoke coming out of the tailpipe.

(Soundbite of snowmobile engine)

The trip is about 60 miles to Old Faithful and back. Our guide points out a bald eagle, a bit later there's elk on a snowy hillside, and then a herd of bison in a field through the trees. About halfway we stop for a break at a warming hut. Along with a few dozen black snowmobiles, there are also several snowcoaches. These are small buses, but instead of wheels they have rubber tracks to power through the snow. Environmentalist wants snowmobilers to take these coaches instead. One snowcoach is quieter and less polluting than a group of snowmobiles. But diehard snowmobilers Jill and John Osborne(ph) from Minneapolis say they still prefer to be out in the whipping wind.

Ms. JILL OSBORNE: To really be as close as you can to nature. I mean that you're still looking through the windows. This you can just be looking right out at the trees, at the animals.

Mr. JOHN OSBORNE: There's a feeling of independence and freedom, and plus being outdoors, as Jill said, this is just being in God's great creation.

BRADY: About six years ago, as President Clinton was leaving office, the Park Service decided to ban all snowmobiles from the park by 2003. Snowmobile manufacturers sued, and the Park Service under the new Bush administration changed its mind. It decided to limit the number of snowmobiles per day instead and require them to go in with a guide. The machines also had to use the latest technology.

Mr. SCOTT: I think it's fabulous. It's terrific that these snowmobile manufacturers are producing cleaner and quieter machines.

BRADY: That's Michael Scott. He heads the environmental group the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Mr. SCOTT: That's going to benefit the users who aren't going to be exposed to as many polluting fumes. It's going to benefit the environment.

BRADY: Park Service research shows air quality has improved over the last couple of years with the sharp drop in the number of snowmobiles in the park. But, says Scott, cleaner is not clean and quieter is not quiet. He'd like to go back to the Clinton-era ban.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Not David McCrary though. His business, Two Top Snowmobile Rental, is one of several in town that's already seen a drop in business with the current limits. Still, he says, he'd rather have half a sandwich than no sandwich at all. So he generally supports the Park Service plan to continue with the limitation on snowmobiles rather than go back to a ban.

Mr. DAVID MCCRAY (Owner, Two Top Snowmobile Rental): To eliminate snowmobiles in Yellowstone is just downright mean spirited, because you're going to disenfranchise a lot of people that come back year after year with their families and their grandchildren, and just generations of people have done this at this point.

BRADY: Environmental groups point out there's thousands of acres of national forest surrounding the park where snowmobilers can motor at will. But it's Yellowstone with its wildlife, geysers and steaming mud pots that attracts many tourists in winter. The Park Service plans to open up the snowmobile issue to public comment in a couple of months.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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