Yellowstone National Park planners seem to have shunted aside science, the public, even their own management guidelines, in their desire to see more snowmobiles in the park by backing a final Environmental Impact Statement on snowmobile use that favors more of the machines in the park than have been in use in recent years.
Yet to be seen is whether the Interior Department under Secretary Dirk Kempthorne or the Park Service under Director Mary Bomar, who have said science will guide management decisions across the national park system, will override that decision.
"When there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant," Secretary Kempthorne said in June of 2006.
Just last year, when Mr. Kempthorne replaced Gail Norton as Secretary of the Interior, and Ms. Bomar replaced Fran Mainella as Director of the National Park Service, there was hope that old problems would be solved with new leadership. On the top of that heap of old problems is the snowmobile debate in Yellowstone.
Yellowstone officials today released their final EIS for winter use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. That hefty, costly document contains a preferred alternative that would allow up to 540 snowmobiles and 83 snow coaches, all relying on commercial guides, in Yellowstone per day. The park is touting this as a reduction in the number of snowmobiles from the previously-allowed 720 per day. But, what seems like a small victory for the environment is far from it.
Over the last four years 250-300 snowmobiles entered the park per day. During that span of time scientific research conducted in the park documented in detail that increasing the number of snowmobiles above 250 per day would add significantly to noise and air pollution problems that already exceed park thresholds and would carry addition impacts on the park's wildlife.
Plus, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the research, allowing more than 250 snowmobiles per day into Yellowstone could compromise human health. Here's what the EPA told Yellowstone planners this past June: "Today, vehicle numbers are reduced by two-thirds compared to historic use, resulting in improved air quality and soundscapes as well as reduced wildlife disturbance."
Beyond the scientific data, which provide enough ammunition for park officials to ban recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone, there's been huge public backlash against snowmobiles in the park.
Seven of the eight surviving former directors of the NPS wrote to Secretary Kempthorne in March, 2007, saying that allowing snowmobile use to increase from significantly reduced levels "would radically contravene both the spirit and letter of the 2006 Management Policies" and "would undercut the park's resurgent natural conditions."
The park's decision also once again ignores the vast number of people who took the time to comment on the draft plan. Seventy-three percent of those commenting on the two parks' proposed winter-use plan favored ending snowmobile use in Yellowstone. Ninety-four percent agreed that snowmobiling damages the natural soundscape of the park.
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade calls the EIS an attempt to "mislead" the American public.
"The National Park Service is proposing a daily limit of 540 snowmobiles, which is down from the temporary cap of 720 snowmobiles per day. But with this proposal, the agency would allow a significant increase in the number of snowmobiles beyond the daily average that was actually present in Yellowstone during the past four winters—between 250 and 290 snowmobiles," says Wade, chair of the group's executive council.
"Monitoring has shown that noise from this actual level of snowmobile use since 2003 is already exceeding Yellowstone’s thresholds. If the number of snowmobiles is allowed to increase from 250 snowmobiles per day to as many as 540 per day, National Park Service scientists have determined that snowmobile noise will grow significantly worse, unhealthy air pollution that has been markedly reduced with fewer snowmobiles could increase, and wildlife will be disturbed more frequently by machines," he adds.
If a few dozen letters from businesses in gateway towns surrounding Yosemite National Park can convince Ms. Bomar not to increase entrance fees to that park, shouldn't sound science and comments from tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans from across the country convince her to prohibit recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone? If not, should we assume politics are guiding the Park Service in Yellowstone?
Yellowstone's own scientists have recommended that the park should cap snowmobile use to the numbers that have cruised park roads during the last four years or, better yet, reduce the number further to avoid or minimize disturbance of the park's wildlife. The further use of snowmobiles also threatens the 2006 Management Policy directive that the NPS should "seek to perpetuate the best possible air quality in parks."
Of course, those scientists have admitted that politics often trump science.
So, when you have science and public opinion in the same camp, is it terribly hard to agree that the park's suggested 540-snowmobile-limit feels out of touch with Secretary Kempthorne's promise of conservation first?
"Why would they pick a number that is higher than they are already having a problem with?" wonders Rick Smith, a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "It just seems hard to understand."
Moving forward, the superintendents of Yellowstone (Suzanne Lewis) and Grand Teton (Mary Scott Gibson) will analyze the final EIS and make a recommendation on the future of winter use in the two parks to the Park Service's regional director in Denver. The regional director will then make his decision, which is expected to be announced in early to mid-November.
Regardless of that decision, it's already been decided that for the upcoming winter as many as 720 snowmobiles will be allowed in Yellowstone on a daily basis.
With Mr. Kempthorne and Ms. Bomar in place, and other key personnel either retired or shuffled away, there had been hope that science and conservation would this time prevail. Many had seen this as an opportunity for the Mary Bomar-led NPS to get it right.
While Mr. Kempthorne has recused himself from this matter, as he was Idaho's governor before becoming Interior secretary, Ms. Bomar can could step in and overturn Yellowstone's desired direction before it is implemented. Whether she will remains to be seen. If she doesn't, don't be surprised if this thorny issue heads back to the federal courts.