Judge Derails Bush Snowmobile Plan

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration must reinstate a 2001 Clinton administration ban on snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, a federal judge ruled late Tuesday. The decision puts the Park Service back on track to phase out snowmobile use in the parks by next year and is a victory for conservationists who have battled long and hard for the ban.

Speaking on behalf of the plaintiffs -the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Fund for Animals - former Park Service Deputy Director Denis Galvin said the ruling reaffirms that "our duty is to take care of our national parks as fully as possible so that we pass them in good health to our grandchildren."

"Had we let that principle slip in Yellowstone to benefit the snowmobile industry, it would have set a terrible precedent in all our national parks," said Galvin, who served as deputy director of the National Park Service under presidents Reagan, Clinton and during the first year of President George W. Bush's administration.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan said the Bush plan amounts to "a 180 degree reversal from a decision on the same issue made by a previous administration." guided

A federal judge has ruled that snowmobiles should be banned from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
Judge Sullivan ruled that the administration failed to explain why the policy should be reversed in light of ample evidence that snowmobiling causes adverse effects on wildlife and resources within the parks.

There is no evidence in the record that shows the reversal was merited, Judge Sullivan said, but there is evidence that the administration's environmental impact statement justifying its plan was "completely politically driven and result oriented."

The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association said today it will appeal the ruling and expects the state of Wyoming and the Bush administration to join the appeal.

The organization had criticized the Bush plan as too stringent, but would prefer that over the Clinton era ban.

The Bush plan set daily limits for the number of snowmobiles allowed in the parks, banned most old, two stroke snowmobiles in favor of quieter and less polluting models, and required most snowmobile users to travel with guides in order to protect wildlife.

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

Judge Sullivan wrote that the explanation that "technological improvements and mitigation measures justify this change, has ... proven weak at best."

The winter recreation season in the parks begins today - and under the Clinton era plan, it will be the last winter season snowmobiles will be allowed in the park.

For this season, the reinstated plan sets a daily limit of 493 snowmobiles in the Yellowstone and 50 in Grand Teton and on the parkway that connects the two parks.

The snowmobiles granted park access must by run by commercial operators and users must travel with guides.

The legal challenge was filed by animal rights and environmental groups, who argued that the Bush administration's regulations to allow snowmobiles violates the law and a prior settlement in another case. snowmobile

Pollution from snowmobiles has created health concerns for employees working in Yellowstone. (Photo courtesy Save Yellowstone)
Sullivan agreed with the plaintiffs that the Bush administration has failed to consider the Park Service's findings on the effects of snowmobile use and to evaluate the environmental impact on the park wildlife - a violation of its 1997 settlement with The Fund For Animals.

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 - a view supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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 the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, 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.

Judge Sullivan wrote that the Park Service "can not debate that pressing health concerns, as well as the possibility of grave environmental damage, demand prompt review."

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Conservationists worry about the impact of continued snowmobile use on wildlife, including bison. (Photo by Steve Maslowski courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Judge Sullivan also ruled that the Park Service must further study the environmental impacts that the packing of 25 foot wide roads for snowmobiles and snowcoaches has on bison and other park wildlife, and ordered the agency to respond to a 1999 petition submitted by the Bluewater Network asking that snowmobiling be banned in all national parks.

The agency's delay in responding to the petition has been "unreasonable," the judge ruled, and he ordered the Park Service to respond by February 17, 2004.

"Given that when the impacts of snowmobiling were actually considered in Yellowstone, the National Park Service found that snowmobile use impacted Park air quality and wildlife to such a level so as to constitute unlawful 'impairment,' it is clear that the impacts of snowmobiling in other parks could also be severe," Judge Sullivan wrote.