Our national parks are not managed democratically, at least not in the truest sense of the word. They're political footballs booted about by whichever party is in power in Washington. Heck, science doesn't even seem to count when you're talking about something as polarizing as snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.
If democracy did reign in the national park system, and the public's voice were heard, we wouldn't be heading into a fourth extensive, exhaustive, and expensive, study into whether snowmobiles are good or bad for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Twice before the parks conducted lengthy environmental impact
statements on that question, and both times snowmobile opponents
overwhelmingly deluged park planners with comments saying the machines
should be banned from the park.
That first onslaught, when coupled with science that showed snowmobiles would pollute the park and harm its wildlife, helped convince the Clinton administration to institute a ban... which the Bush administration quickly lifted in favor of yet another EIS. Then, when presented with similar public and scientific opposition during the preparation of the 2003 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the administration figured out a way to say technological advances in snowmobile mechanics demanded that yet another EIS be prepared. At a cost somewhere between $2 million and $3 million. Guess who gets handed that bill.
Earlier this year, the public was asked to comment on what it thought the latest EIS should consider. Out of the more than 33,000 comments received by the Park Service, 30,147 -- 90 percent! -- said snowmachines should be banned and snowcoaches should be used to ferry visitors around Yellowstone. Just more than 30,000 of the comments specifically referenced the negative impacts snowmobiles have on air quality.
Twenty-seven-thousand of the comments cited the negative impacts snowmobiles have on park environmental resources and values, as well as NPS studies that have pointed to the snowmobiles' negative impacts.Twenty-six-thousand-594 of the comments cited the Park Service's mandate under the National Park Organic Act to preserve and protect park resources for future generations.
Just 1,633 comments --0.048 percent of those received -- called for no limits or higher upper limits on snowmobile access in the two parks.
But there's no guarantee the public's voice will be heard. Park planners say upfront that the scoping period used to collect public comments does not equate with a vote on the issue. And that's a shame for the hundreds of thousands who, during the past six years, have taken the time to write the Park Service and express their views on this subject.
Over in West Yellowstone, Montana, Randy Roberson is listening to the public. For years Roberson ran snowmobile trips into Yellowstone. He made his living doing that. Then, when the Park Service began to consider phasing out snowmobiles in favor of snowcoaches, Roberson began to reevaluate his Yellowstone Vacations business.
These days Roberson strictly runs snowcoach tours into Yellowstone -- he has a fleet of six coaches-- and he says the public loves them. "To put it mildly, our town has gone through a rough patch the past few years," he told me. "But now advance bookings are up significantly for the winter season that begins Wednesday."
More and more of the visitors who come to Yellowstone in the winter, says Roberson, want to see the park from the comfort of a snowcoach.
"With improvements in snowcoach technology and changes in what families and individuals are looking for in winter visits to the park, I knew I could provide a more enjoyable experience for Yellowstone visitors by focusing on snowcoach tours," he says. "Outside of the park I still offer snowmobile tours. But inside Yellowstone, I provide guided tours with state-of-the-art snowcoaches -- heated, with picture windows -- driven by guides who are able to tell visitors all about Yellowstone's wildlife, geology and history."
Unfortunately, Roberson's views, nor the views of his customers, nor those of the 30,147 folks who took the time to express their opinions to Yellowstone's planners, carry no weight.
And that's a shame.