Bush Proposal Revs Up Yellowstone Snowmobile Controversy

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, August 28, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration has proposed winter recreation rules that allow continued snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, despite widespread public support for a ban on snowmobiles in the parks and more than a decade of research detailing the negative impact from the machines on the health of the parks and their employees.

The proposal, published Wednesday in the Federal Register, sets daily limits for the number of snowmobiles allowed in the parks, bans most old, two stroke snowmobiles in favor of quieter and less polluting models, and requires most snowmobile users to travel with guides in order to protect wildlife.

The rule calls for a daily limit of 1,190 snowmobiles - 950 in Yellowstone and 190 in Grand Teton and the parkway that connects the two parks.

Most of the snowmobiles allowed in the parks will have to be four stroke models that are less polluting and less noisy than the two stroke machines, and the Park Service will publish a list of acceptable models. The administration says new models can reduce carbon monoxide emissions by as much as 85 percent and hydrocarbons by some 95 percent. guided

The Park Service believes requiring guides will limit conflicts between snowmobilers and wildlife. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
All snowmobile entries into Yellowstone will be by reservation only, and 80 percent of all snowmobile entries will be commercially guided.

The rule also outlines an adaptive management strategy for the Park Service to enable officials to take management actions as new information about the impacts of snowmobile use becomes available.

Snowmobiles will be allowed only on snow covered roads, the same roads that are used in the summer months by automobiles, busses and trucks.

The administration and snowmobile advocates believe the proposal sets the right balance, but it has done little to appease critics who see no room for middle ground on the issue.

Conservationists say the noise and pollution from snowmobiles is destroying the air and threatening the health of the parks' wildlife and rangers - and there is ample evidence the Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) agree.

Over the past decade the Park Service has studied the impacts of snowmobile use on park wildlife, air quality, human health and visitor experience. The agency's research, which included 375 scientific studies and 22 public hearings, revealed that snowmobile use was negatively affecting each of these factors.

Studies by the Park Service's Air Resource Division have found that snowmobiles contribute up to 68 percent of the park's annual carbon monoxide emissions, and up to 90 percent of its hydrocarbon pollution.

Recent studies by OSHA, the federal government agency charged with safeguarding the health of American workers, found that Yellowstone employees were exposed to dangerous levels of noise, carbon monoxide and benzene.

In the past few winters, the government provided Park Service employees with respirators and earplugs to safeguard against the pollution and noise of the snowmobiles.

In its proposed rule the Park Service acknowledged concerns of its employees , writing that "complaints of nausea, dizziness, headaches, sore throats, eye irritation, light-headedness, and lethargy are frequent among employees who work at the West Entrance and others who work within heavily used travel corridors."

And earlier this summer the EPA raised concerns that the Park Service has not gone far enough to mitigate the emissions impact from snowmobiles on human health and air quality. snowmobile

Pollution from snowmobiles has created health concerns for employees working in Yellowstone. (Photo courtesy Save Yellowstone)
Critics note that the Bush proposal of a daily limit of 1,190 machines is higher than the current average daily use of 840 snowmobiles. Snowmobile advocates counter that the limit is lower than the average weekend figure of some 1,650 snowmobiles a day.

The proposal furthers the controversy over snowmobile use in the parks and is likely to spark additional legal action. It was a legal challenge that derailed the Clinton administration's plan to prohibit recreational snowmobile use in the parks.

That rule was finalized in 2000, but implementation was delayed by a law suit brought by snowmobile manufacturers. In June 2001, the Bush administration settled the suit by requiring the Park Service to reexamine public comment and scientific review.

The agency received some 360,000 comments during the comment period - a record number for a Park Service rule - and more than 80 percent of respondents favored the ban on snowmobiles.

But the Bush administration opted to reverse the ban and issued its final record of decision in March 2003, contending that daily limits and new technologies could allow snowmobiles and the parks to coexist. The rule proposed Wednesday implements that decision, which is also being challenged in court by conservation groups.

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate to enact a ban on snowmobile use in the parks.

Critics say the policy exposes the administration's indifference to the public's view on the issue.

"The administration is creating a future for our first national park at odds with what most visitors have said they want to experience in Yellowstone," said Michael Scott, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Montana-based nonprofit conservation organization.

Former Yellowstone ranger Sean Smith adds that the proposal does not address the impact snowmobile trails have on park wildlife such as bison. Smith says that groomed snowmobile trails permit the migration of park bison into Montana, where they can be shot by livestock officials under a highly controversial interagency management plan.

The public should know that cleaner snowmobiles are still dirty machines, says Smith, the public lands director for Bluewater Network, one of the conservation groups challenging the administration's decision to allow snowmobile use in the parks.

"Snowmobiles in Yellowstone are another step toward turning the park into little more than a motorized amusement park," he said. snowybison

Conservationists worry about the impact of continued snowmobile use on wildlife, including bison. (Photo by Steve Maslowski courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS))
And there is nothing in the proposal that outlines how the Park Service will pay for the new snowmobile use plan, adds Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

Kiernan's organization says Yellowstone National Park faces an annual budget shortfall of some $22 million.

The administration's determination to continue snowmobile use in Yellowstone forces additional needless responsibilities on the Park Service and "illustrates the influence of industry special interests in exacerbating the grim financial reality of the park," Kiernan said.

Kiernan and others note that even the Park Service acknowledged in its proposed rule that the vast majority of visitors come to the parks for "tranquility, peace and quiet, and solitude but that they are often dissatisfied with their actual experience."

The Park Service says it will issue a final rule before the winter season begins in December, although some parts of the plan will not become effective until December 2004 in order to provide for a reasonable phase in.

Public comments on the proposed rules will be accepted until October 14, 2003 and may be submitted online at http://www.nps.gov/yell/rule