WEST YELLOWSTONE, MONT.
As the most famous attraction of the world's oldest national park, Old Faithful is, in many ways, the premier symbol of rustic America in the frozen maw of winter.
Since President Ulysses Grant created Yellowstone in 1872, Old Faithful has been synonymous with solitude. But these days, visitors to Yellowstone hear more than the rush of water. Those gathering to see the eruption of the geothermal gusher are routinely unable to hear it over the noise of snowmobiles in a nearby parking lot.
The growth of snowmobiling is such that one major entry to the park, West Yellowstone, Mont., has been called the Snowmobile Capital of the World.
Yet the industry here is increasingly under attack. While some 36 units of the National Park System allow snowmobiling - accounting for about 180,000 riders a year - each is awaiting the outcome of a contentious planning process in Yellowstone that will decide how much, if any, commercial snowmobiling will continue.
As such, Yellowstone, which hosts some 65,000 riders each year, has emerged as the linchpin in a growing debate over the appropriateness of snowmobiles in national parks.
To environmentalists and many local residents, the machines are noisy, smelly abominations that should be banned to protect Yellowstone's serenity. But business leaders say the activity is a key part of the local economy - the bread and butter of winter season.
Snowmobiling has long been prohibited in Glacier and Lassen Volcano National Parks because of perceived threats to natural resources. Recent flare-ups over requests for expanded snowmobiling have occurred in Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota and Denali in Alaska, but Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park remain the highest-stake battlegrounds, largely because of their high national profiles.