Last June when the National Park Service released the 2006 version of its Management Policies, the in-house bible, if you will, that guides on-the-ground decisions in the park system, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne heaped praise on the update.
"When there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant," Kempthorne said during a ceremony under sunny skies on the Washington Mall. "That is the heart of these policies and the lifeblood of our nation's commitment to care for these special places and provide for their enjoyment."
What will be interesting to see in the weeks and months ahead is whether Dirk and his National Park Service director, Mary Bomar, truly embrace the intent and direction of those Management Policies when it comes to over-snow traffic in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Where things stand now, with Yellowstone officials leaning towards a plan that would allow up to 720 snowmobiles per day into their park, it's as if the Management Policies or the park's scientific studies don't really matter.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month commented on Yellowstone's proposed plan
for over-snow vehicles, the agency cited quite a range of
inconsistencies between that plan and the various guidelines and
regulations that direct the Park Service's actions.
Indeed, in reviewing the very first table in the plan, the one titled, "Desired Versus Historic Conditions for Winter Use Planning" on page 7, the EPA notes that, "The goals provided appear to fall short of the resource protections specified in the Management Policies. We recommend revising the Desired Conditions to more specifically align with the Management Policies."
The points raised by the EPA document make one question whether Yellowstone's staff somehow is unfamiliar with the regulatory landscape or if politics, not science, are guiding the process.
The EPA's Region 8 office had the opportunity to dissect Yellowstone's "preliminary draft environmental impact statement" because of its role as a cooperating agency involved in the efforts to develop a winter use management plan for Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
In analyzing that document, though, the EPA pointed out what I would term to be glaring deficiencies, particularly in light of the many months the Park Service spent on honing the 2006 version of its Management Policies.
The conflicts between the PDEIS and the Management Policies, as noted by the EPA, are significant in areas of resource protection and are surprisingly numerous, more so when you realize that this is the third full-blown EIS the Yellowstone staff has prepared since 2000. There are plenty of studies to review to examine the impacts of snowmobiles and snowcoaches, and there has been plenty of time to appreciate what's at stake.
Fortunately, the process is ongoing. The official draft environmental impact statement isn't due for another few months, time enough for Yellowstone officials and planners to ensure that the document dovetails with their responsibilities, as dictated by the Management Policies and other federal regulations.
Keeping the Plan Compliant With Management Policies
In its letter to the park, the EPA suggested that the upcoming DEIS list the alternative that would meet, or best come close to meeting, the dictates of the 2006 Management Policies. Specifically, the EPA suggested the park point out in the DEIS the alternative that would:
* 'avoid or minimize to the greatest extent practicable, adverse impacts on park resources and values,' as Section 1.4.3 of the Management Policies directs the agency to do;
* perpetuate 'the best possible air quality in the parks," as Section 4.7.1 directs;
* 'preserves to the greatest extent possible, the natural soundscapes of parks," as Section 4.9 directs', and;
* utilizes the 'least impacting equipment, vehicles, and transportation systems,' as Section 8.2.3 directs.
Too, the EPA asks that Yellowstone officials cite the alternative that best "minimizes harassment of wildlife or significant disruption of wildlife habitats," as Executive Order 11644, which pertains to off-road vehicle use on federal lands, directs.
And the EPA suggests the park point to the alternative that would be most "consistent with the park's natural, cultural, scenic and aesthetic values, safety considerations, park management objectives, and will not disturb wildlife or damage park resources," as directed by the Code of Federal Regulations.
Specifically, 36 CFR 2.18c states that, "The use of snowmobiles is prohibited, except on designated routes and water surfaces that are used by motor vehicles or motorboats during other seasons. ... Snowmobiles are prohibited except where designated and only when their use is consistent with the park's natural, cultural, scenic and aesthetic values, ... and will not disturb wildlife or damage park resources."
As for air quality, the EPA letter suggests park officials take a stronger stand against air pollution, noting that Yellowstone's airshed under the Clean Air Act carries a Class I designation, which requires that the park's air quality be "maintained as close to pristine as possible..."
And yet, under the PDEIS's preferred alternative, Yellowstone officials are willing to define "a perceptible and localized change in visibility 'within a relatively small area' as a minor impact." Ironically, in 2003 the Yellowstone staff, when working on a supplemental environmental impact statement (Chapter 4, pages 242-246) for winter use, considered such visibility impacts to constitute an "impairment" of the park.
"We recommend you consider any perceptible change in visibility from use within the parks as at least a 'moderate' if not a 'major' impact," the EPA suggested. "Perceptible visibility impacts in Class I areas do not seem consistent with providing as close to pristine air quality as possible, even if the impact occurs in a 'relatively small area.'"
The EPA also points to a weakness in how Yellowstone officials evaluated pollutants from snowmobiles and snowcoaches. In noting that the PDEIS listed formaldehyde emissions measured at the park's West Entrance station at 0.01 parts per million with an average "of only 180 best available technology snowmobiles passing the entrance," the EPA said it "is readily conceivable that with 720 snowmobiles per day, the (recommended exposure limits) could be exceeded."
Owen Hoffman, a retired NPS ranger, finds it odd and disquieting that the Park Service let such lapses appear in its proposal.
"I used to consider the preservation/protection mission of the NPS such that NPS air quality standards should and would be much more restrictive than those established by the EPA and other federal agencies," he says. "It's strange for me to read EPA comments on an NPS draft regarding the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park that indicate that the NPS is being too lenient regarding levels of snowmobile exhaust emissions to be associated with alternative-use assumptions.
"The fact that the NPS must be reminded by EPA that under some alternative-use options NIOSH exposure limits might be approached is troublesome. Times have changed indeed."
Peculiar also is use by the Yellowstone staff of the wording "as is practicable" when discussing natural soundscapes under the winter use plan. While the draft version of the 2006 Management Policies frequently resorted to such language, most, if not all, of it was stricken in the final version. Indeed, when natural soundscapes are discussed in the final version the phrase, "to the greatest extent possible," is used.
A Bullet Against Snowcoaches?
As it reviewed the PDEIS, the EPA also pointed to a section that could prove to have been engineered to ensure that a snowcoach-only alternative never gains approval. Buried on page 279 of the document is Table 105: Definition of Impacts for Visitor Access and Circulation. Within that table it defines as a "major adverse impact" any change "in the mode of transportation ... evident to virtually all visitors," a situation that would arise if snowmobiles were banned and only snowcoaches provided on-snow transportation for park visitors.
"... the PDEIS provides no explanation for why 'changes in the mode of transportation' would have any effect on visitor access and circulation," the EPA notes. "This is a concern because a change in transportation mode could have significant positive effects on the environment, park resources, and even visitor access, and yet still be considered a 'major adverse' effect."
Will Yellowstone, Dirk and Mary Address These Inconsistencies?
As I said at the outset, what will be interesting to see is how Yellowstone officials, Dirk and Mary address these inconsistencies in the winter-use management plan.
The fact is, they have the authority right now to minimize impacts on the world's oldest national park, one that has intrigued, amazed and delighted untold millions of visitors.
But will they?