Do Yellowstone National Park officials have a responsibility to alert winter visitors to the potentially harmful effects of snowmobile noise? I touched on that question the other day in reporting on a letter a Yale University expert on noise in the workplace wrote to Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis.
I'm coming back to it now because of feedback I received, feedback that questioned why the park should have an obligation to warn visitors about snowmobile noise. After all, while the National Park Service most certainly has an obligation to protect its employees from harmful conditions, park visitors are not NPS employees.
After discussing the question with some folks, and taking a look at the Park Service's Management Policies, I think an argument can be made that Yellowstone officials do indeed have a responsibility, though probably not a legally binding one, to alert visitors to potential health threats associated with snowmobiles.
The person who wondered why I thought the Park Service had any obligation to alert visitors to the possibility of snowmobile noise harming their hearing questioned whether I also thought the agency had an obligation to warn summertime visitors that they could hurt their hearing by playing their car radios or MP3 players too loudly.
However, Bill Wade, chairman of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and a long-time park superintendent who had to grapple with such thorny questions, had a pretty good answer for me.
"There is no obligation to warn people of hazards they create themselves," said Wade, who cautioned me that he is not a lawyer and so his answer had no legal backing. "A way of stating the difference is that there is some responsibility to inform people about hazards that exist in the environment they are invited to, but not about those they bring with them or create themselves.
"People are not invited to use their car stereos in parks, though they are allowed to. NPS is inviting people to use snowmobiles to get to places in parks, and therefore has some responsibility for informing those invited of hazards related to them."
Bob Seibert, the long-time district ranger in Yellowstone's West Yellowstone District, said it seemed "indefensible" for Yellowstone officials not to caution the public, especially when it would cost little and take only a few minutes, if that.
Seibert, who lost some of his hearing as a result of riding snowmobiles while on the job, said it was incredulous that Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash told myself and other reporters that Dr. Peter Rabinowitz's letter to Superintendent Lewis would be considered along with all the other public comments the park has received on the question of public snowmobiling in Yellowstone.
"What really strikes me about Nash's response to your inquiries about Dr. Rabinowitz's letter was that the doctor's comments will be rolled into the thousands of other comments received on this issued and be evaluated at some later day," says Seibert. "That flies in the face of the terrific emphasis that Yellowstone has placed on employee and visitor safety over the past eight or so years, beginning with the formation of a partnership with OSHA to improve a very poor employee safety record.
"Since then, safety has taken center stage and has become management's mantra. To wait for all the public comments to be evaluated, indeed to even place the doctor's letter in a stack of other public comments while unsuspecting visitors daily climb aboard snowmobiles without even a warning or the option to secure hearing protection, smacks severely of political motivations rather than concern for public safety. This is especially indefensible with such easy and low-cost remedies available."
Wade also touched on the impression Yellowstone officials create by saying the snowmobiles used in the park are the "Best Available Technology."
"Now, most folks know that snowmobiles are noisy, but a key here seems to be that the public could be misled by the fact that (supposedly) only “best available technology” sleds are allowed in the park, and that, therefore, they must be more safe and free of hazards," he told me. "I think that increases, even if only slightly, a common sense expectation on park management to inform the public that these machines are still noisy enough to be a risk."
Finally, let me leave you with some passages from the Park Service's own Management Policies (albeit the proposed revised version):
* “The saving of human life will take precedence over all other management actions
as the Park Service strives to protect human life and provide for injury-free
* “While recognizing that there are limitations on its capability to totally eliminate all hazards, the Service and its concessionaires, contractors, and cooperators will seek to promote a safe and healthful environment for visitors and employees.”
* “When practicable, and consistent with congressionally designated purposes and mandates, the Service will reduce or remove known hazards and apply other appropriate measures, including closures, guarding, signings, or other forms of education.”