Park Service Ordered to Accelerate Yellowstone Snowmobile Rules
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, July 2, 2004 (ENS) - The Park Service must issue new snowmobiling rules for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks at least 30 days prior to the start of the 2004-2005 winter season, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled on Wednesday.
The order is an attempt to reduce the chaos swirling around the Yellowstone snowmobiling controversy, which is in play in two federal courts and has been the subject of litigation for nearly a decade.
Last December, the Bush administration issued its rules for snowmobile use in the Yellowstone parks only six days before the start of the winter season.
The plan reversed a Clinton era ban of snowmobiles in the parks. The Clinton plan called for limited snowmobiles in the 2003-2004 season prior to a complete ban of the machines by the following winter.
On December 16, 2003 - five days after the release of the new plan and one day prior to the start of the winter season - Sullivan ruled that the Bush administration's attempt to derail the Clinton-era rule two parks was illegal.
The ruling forced the Park Service to impose strict limits on the number of snowmobiles allowed in the parks.
Sullivan's ruling, however, prompted the state of Wyoming and the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA) to ask a district court judge in Cheyenne to reopen a related case.
In February 2004 U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer heeded that request and issued a temporary injunction blocking the Clinton ban. He ordered the Park Service to issue a temporary rule that increased snowmobiling in the parks for the remainder of the 2003-2004 season.
The conflicting rulings leave the Park Service uncertain of which way to turn and the agency asked Sullivan to modify his ruling to remedy "an impossible situation."
In Wednesday's response, Sullivan relieved the Park Service from its obligation to enforce the Clinton plan. But he stressed that the agency must address the concerns of his earlier ruling, which questioned the administration's claim that technological improvements and mitigation measures justify the reversal of the Clinton ban.
"Lest there be any doubt by anyone, the Court sharply emphasizes that the remainder of [that order] remains in full force and effect," Sullivan wrote.
He noted that the situation of rival court rulings was "not of this Court's making" and rejected a bid by the Park Service and the ISMA to give the case over the Brimmer's court.
The judge questioned whether the delay had been intentional, in particular as he called on the Park Service to expedite its release of the rule last November.
"The government is admonished that its enactment of rules literally hours prior to the commencement of the winter season does little, if anything, to properly inform the public of agency decisions, erodes the public's confidence in the rule-making process, and casts innumerable aspersions on the legitimacy of that process," Sullivan wrote in the 10 page ruling.
Sullivan indicated his decision aims to provide some certainty to local retailers and visitors to the parks, who last year struggled with the changing winter use rules.
But whether it will is far from certain - the ruling will give both advocates and opponents of snowmobiling in the parks ample time to file legal challenges before the winter season begins in mid-December.
In addition, the issue is still at play in Brimmer's court and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is considering a challenge to the Wyoming judge's injunction that blocked the Park Service from implementing the Clinton ban.
The Park Service says it is reviewing the implications of Sullivan's latest ruling, but it is already moving forward with rules to keep the parks open to snowmobiles.
Last month, it announced it would also conduct a new environmental assessment to determine the impact of snowmobiles in the parks, with the aim of releasing the assessment for public comment by August 20, 2004.
"The Park Service has been through this process twice before and the science, the public, and the law have all said that snowmobiling is inappropriate in these parks," said Carl Schneebeck, a former Grand Teton National Park ranger and spokesman for Bluewater Network, which filed suit to ban snowmobiles in the parks. "Hopefully the third time will be the charm."
Environmentalists note that during a 2001 review of the proposed ban, the Park Service 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.
Snowmobile advocates contend a complete ban on snowmobiles is extreme and will harm the local economy.
They say the Bush plan strikes a fair balance between environmental protection and recreation.
That 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.
An attempt by members of the U.S. House of Representatives to ban snowmobiles in the Yellowstone parks failed last month by a vote of 224 to 198.