For some time now, I've been trying to digest the latest monitoring reports conducted into snowmobile use at Yellowstone National Park. And I'm struggling to understand the message they push forward: That snowmobiles in the park aren't that big of a deal when you consider soundscapes and wildlife.
How that conclusion can be reached with the limited data behind the reports is beyond me, moreso when you remember that the National Park Service's primary mission is to conserve resources unimpaired. Spend time reviewing the reports and, if you worry about the impacts of snowmobiles on Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, I think you'll share my concern.
Too, you might wonder how much the political atmosphere in Washington, where top Interior Department officials are promoting sweeping revisions to the Park Service's Management Policies, is affecting the work in Yellowstone?
If you compare some of the proposed revisions in the Management Policies to some of the conclusions in the monitoring reports, you might wonder if only coincidence is involved?
Snowmobiles in Yellowstone is an issue that simply won't die. It's a highly divisive and polarizing issue, so much so that proponents and opponents alike can't help but wonder if those in the Park Service charged with deciding the matter are truly acting objectively, or whether the agency is swayed by the political party in power.
Take a look at what I've written previously about the snowmobile monitoring reports on soundscapes and wildlife. And keep in mind not only the NPS's conservation mandate, but the fact that the conclusions of these reports are based on studies conducted when the average daily number of snowmobiles in Yellowstone was 239, NOT the 720 snowmobiles allowed under the winter-use plan now in effect.
Also keep in mind that these reports, and the forthcoming Environmental Impact Statement, were spurred by the Bush administration. The administration, anxious to see snowmobiling in the park if only to appease the industry, asked for the monitoring reports with the thought that new technology in the form of four-stroke snowmobile engines would reduce impacts on the park's resources.
What these reports show, however, is that the latest technology is not as clean and quiet as the administration and the industry had predicted.
Now, if the conclusions reached by these reports are based on data gleaned from less than half of the allowable snowmobile traffic, how can they possibly be of any use in determining the appropriate number of recreational snowmobiles in the park, or even if recreational snowmobiles are appropriate for the park?
"I think that's a good question. It's an important question that's not really getting out there," Betsy Buffington, a staffer in The Wilderness Society's Bozeman, Montana, office who has been devoting a good measure of her waking hours to this issue, told me.
Yellowstone Officials Hope Modeling Will Fill in the Gaps
In Yellowstone, John Sacklin is the person trying to ride herd over the data in these reports and the weighing and measuring of information that will be used to compile the latest Environmental Impact Statement being prepared on snowmobiling in the park. He's not quite as concerned as Buffington over the number of snowmobiles that were in the park last year when the monitoring data were collected because computer modeling should help fill in the unknowns.
"That is one of the dilemmas with the monitoring information, in that it really tells us a lot about what goes on when you have on the order of 250 snowmobiles a day up to 430, which was approximately our peak day last winter," he told me. "It doesn't tell us anything about snowmobile numbers, with the kind of restrictions that we have in place, that are in the 600-range. That's where the modeling really takes over from the monitoring results."
But if the modeling is based on data collected during a winter that was below normal in terms of cold and snow, as well as in numbers of snowmobiles, how sound can that modeling be? Also, keep in mind that the reports issued this winter are just the initial findings from long-term studies, studies that could be drastically affected if winter in Yellowstone returns to normal.
"How do you make a decision, supposedly for the long-term management of the world's first national park, based on initial findings?" wondered Buffington. "Especially when those initial findings differ so significantly from the last 18 years of scientific analysis?"
The analysis that Buffington refers to focuses largely on past wildlife studies that reveal that animals are indeed impacted by snowmobiles, and snowcoaches, and even cross-country skiers or snowshowers, even if they don't run away. That impact was identified in the 2003 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement ordered up by the Bush administration after it reversed the Clinton administration's ban on snowmobiles. In the 2003 report, near the bottom of page 196 the preparers of that voluminous study noted that "animals that may appear unaffected by human activities may nonetheless be suffering from adverse effects."
And even though wildlife might appear to habituate to snowmobiles, snowcoaches, cross-country skiers and snowshoers, the 2003 SEIS noted that "although habituated ungulates may fail to exhibit overt behavioral responses, research has shown that physiological responses, including an increase in heart rates, may occur and can result in high energy expenditures. Increases in energy expenditures during the stressful winter period are considered deleterious to the overall physical condition of the animal."
Gaps and Holes in the Monitoring Reports
Surprisingly, at least to me, that 2003 finding was not mentioned in the latest report on wildlife reactions to snowmobiles. P.J. White, one of the Yellowstone biologists who worked on that study, told me that last year's monitoring work did not touch on the stress levels of wildlife, although he allowed that "animals' heart rates could go up."
White also told me he didn't know how habituation would play into wildlife's reaction to snowmobiles or snowcoaches. And, perhaps unintentionally, he cast some doubt on his report's conclusions when I asked how data collected with average snowmobile traffic of 239 machines per day could be extrapolated to traffic levels of 720 per day during heavy snow years.
"Certainly, our ability to make inferences would be better if we could sample during severe snow years," the biologist answered.
What White would feel most comfortable with, he said, is a long-term study that involves average and above-average snow years.
"My intention is to get four years done and work with some statisticians to get a good analysis done and get it peer reviewed and get some criticism and scientific comment on it," he said. "I look at these results as preliminary."
More Than the Latest Monitoring Data Will be Used for EIS
For his part, Sacklin not only will use the latest monitoring data but that provided via the 2001 and 2003 environmental impact statements, as well as the 2004 Environmental Assessment, while compiling the forthcoming draft EIS.
"The next winter-use plan is not being prepared in a vacuum," he told me. "It's not like we're starting over totally from scratch."
However, some of the rules have changed, at least for the time-being. A big change centers on the Park Service's decision to weaken the standard for how much noise constitutes a "major adverse effect."
Back when the 2003 SEIS was prepared, park officials decided such an effect would occur in developed areas of Yellowstone when noise above 70 decibels -- the amount of noise your typical vacuum cleaner makes -- was heard 50 percent of the time between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The 2004 Environmental Assessment weakened that standard by 50 percent, determining that a major adverse effect would be registered only when noise above 70 decibels was recorded 75 percent of the time.
Sacklin explained the change by saying that soundscapes science is relative new and not exact. Plus, he said, a decision was made to adopt Park Service-wide noise standards.
Can one equate noise levels in parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier or Olympic, with sounds at the Washington Mall, Cape Cod National Seashore, or Independent Hall? Should park officials deem that what's acceptable at those last three units be acceptable at the first four?
"No," replied Sacklin. The guidelines, he told me, were simply guidelines, not hard and fast rules, and there is a difference between acceptable noise levels at urban parks and wilderness parks.
"As we're preparing this next winter plan, we'll go back and look at all these impact definitions yet again and ask ourselves, 'Do they make sense, are they meaningful, do they need to be modified or updated, can they be made more precise or accurate, or not?''' he told me.
How Will Timing of Reports' Release Impact EIS?
There's another concern that Buffington and others have with the monitoring reports. They were issued long after Yellowstone closed its scoping period for public input into what issues park researchers should consider when building the next EIS.
Is that fair? Shouldn't the Park Service have allowed the public to review the monitoring reports and then pose comments during the scoping period, rather than shut down the scoping period and release the studies? Might such a timetable have allowed someone to raise the question about stress levels in wildlife that don't seem flustered by snowmobiles or question the sizable change in how much noise constitutes a major adverse effect?
"There will be another round of comment on the DEIS," Buffington points out. "But again, the whole point of scoping is, 'What issues do we need to look at based on the data that we have?'
"We didn't have that data, so we can't bring up issues," she says. "If we don't bring up the issues, there's some question of, 'Well, you didn't bring it up so we really don't have to address it in the EIS.'"
Sacklin, though, says scoping is an ongoing process.
"There's a lot of time between the end of the formal scoping period and as we're moving forward preparing an EIS for people to look at those monitoring reports and to give us information, give us feedback, give us perspectives on those," he said. "So it's not as if the door closes to new information."
New information that would be nice to have, but which probably won't make it into the forthcoming EIS, revolves around a hybrid snowmobile engine being designed by Raser Technologies, a Utah company. The company approached Yellowstone officials about a year ago to show off their engine, which purportedly is just as powerful as a two-stroke snowmobile engine but 618 times quieter.
"We simply haven't heard much from them," said Sacklin. "If they came forward, we'd be happy to start a dialog up again."
What Are We To Make Of All This?
So where do we go from here? Should we assume the roles of conspiracy theorists, noting that proposed revisions in the Management Policies would lessen the standards for natural soundscapes? Or should we hope for the best?
Buffington told me park officials have been adament in maintaining that the monitoring reports were not fashioned with the proposed revisions to the Management Policies in mind.
However, she added that, "What we have heard is that the policy changes, the people who are working at the Management Policies level, are looking specifically at what's going on in Yellowstone and writing for that situation. I don't know if that's true."
What's not to be overlooked is that each of the environmentally preferred alternatives espoused in the last three environmental studies of snowmobiles in Yellowstone called for a ban on the machines.
From where he stands, Sacklin notes that the Park Service tries to balance preservation and enjoyment of the resources.
"It's always a balance," he told me. "Where do you draw that line between the preservation and the enjoyment? ... I would be the first one to recognize that as one looks at where that balance point is -- and when I say 'balance,' that doesn't necessarily mean equal, but it balances -- it can vary over the years. As we learn more, we understand more."