YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo., Feb. 16 -- About the same time Wednesday morning that her fellow Cabinet members were boarding limousines for the ride to the office, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton pulled on three layers of fleece and Gore-Tex, a pair of Sno-Rider mittens so thickly padded they looked like boxing gloves, and a black helmet fitted with an anti-frostbite visor -- and then set off on a three-hour snowmobile ride.
In a sense, Norton was making her own trip to the office here in the white-blanketed world of the nation's first national park. The chilling excursion through the frozen depths of a Yellowstone winter was her way to take a personal look at a fundamental issue facing any interior secretary: How to protect one of Mother Nature's most spectacular creations from the ravages of mankind and machine.
Although her morning ride was bumpier, noisier and vastly colder than a chauffeured trip on Constitution Avenue -- the temperature was 10 below zero at 9:30 a.m., when Norton mounted her Arctic Cat 660 snowmobile -- the secretary said she did find some resemblance to a working day inside the Beltway.
"It's not all that different from Washington," Norton said as she watched a majestic gray plume of superheated steam venting from Jewel Geyser. "I mean, look at all the hot air around here."
For more than four years now, the issue of snowmobile use in Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton national parks has generated huge quantities of hot air, with environmentalists battling snowmobile makers, dueling federal judges issuing directly contradictory orders, and the National Park Service caught rather uncomfortably in the middle.
The Park Service has studied the question three times in four years, and concluded each time that the "environmentally preferred alternative" would be to ban snowmobiles from the fragile winter ecosystems of Yellowstone and Grand Teton. In 2000, the Clinton administration proposed a ban -- only to be reversed when President Bush came to office.
Currently, with Norton's imprimatur, Yellowstone is operating under a "Temporary Winter Use Plan" that permits 720 snowmobilers a day to buzz through the park.
The plan, in effect at least until 2007, requires the use of a new generation of four-stroke engines that are quieter and less polluting than the two-stroke machines common when the Clinton ban was issued. Riders are restricted to main park roads, and they must be accompanied by licensed guides who do their best to steer the snarling machines away from the herds of shaggy bison that wander the park grazing on moss and lichens beneath the deep and endless carpet of driven snow.
This decision has been enormously popular in such park gateway communities as West Yellowstone, Mont., a city that has 800 residents and 750 rental snowmobiles. "Renting these sleds puts food on the table in this town," said Jerry Johnson, owner of one of the town's 15 snowmobile outlets.
But this winter, at least, the right to snowmobile has proven far less popular with winter visitors. The number of snowmobiles passing through the main entrance at West Yellowstone has fallen about 70 percent since two winters ago, averaging about one-fifth of the permitted 720 daily users.
That is partly because of meager snowfall this winter. But the main reason is that most winter visitors are choosing instead to travel by "snowcoach" -- a passenger bus equipped with a tank tread in the rear and two skis, instead of tires, on the front. Snowcoach business is up 20 percent this season.
"Even though you're inside a coach, you're really closer to the park that way," notes Jon Catton, an environmental activist in Bozeman, Mont. "On the snowmobile, you wall yourself off from nature with all those heavy suits and the helmet and the wail of the engine. If you spot an eagle or an elk or a trumpeter swan, you can't tell your guide to stop because he won't be able to hear you."
The crisp, clear winter weather and the relative absence of humans -- the park gets 3 million visitors each summer, and 110,000 all winter -- make the wonders of Yellowstone seem even more wonderful this time of year. Silver-blue rivers glisten in the sun between their gleaming icy banks. The stark, blackened forests left behind by the wildfires of 1988 look all the more stark and black against the ivory blanket surrounding them.
As Norton was bouncing down the road Wednesday morning, her entourage stopped to watch a moment rarely viewed by humans -- a khaki-brown coyote and two white-capped bald eagles sharing lunch on an elk carcass beside the racing Madison River. Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis said such raw vistas of nature would probably be played out deep in the forest during the summer season.
Although the locals said they appreciated Norton's winter visit, they were exasperated by the demands of rank and high office.
"Government people, they're worse than rich people," said Johnson, the snowmobile outfitter. "Like, the deputy assistant undersecretary is going to be a half-hour late! And that's a huge crisis for the Washington types."