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Director Bomar: Let Science, Not Politics, Decide the Yellowstone Snowmobile Issue


The pledge by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar to let science prevail in national park management decisions is nearing its defining test. If science is not supported in Yellowstone, where else in the park system will it have the final say?

In his cover letter to President Bush on the Centennial Initiative, Mr. Kempthorne promised that stewardship and science will guide decisions. Director Bomar reiterated that point to me last week in Texas, where she appeared at the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy.

"When I came into the National Park Service, I didn't realize the in-depth that the good stewards in the national parks went to. Often, we'd be accused of studying things to death. If you didn't like the answer we'll do another study," she said. "But I will say over time that I've come to really appreciate that, that we make good decisions based on good information."

Perhaps tellingly in relation to the decision-making ongoing in the Yellowstone snowmobile issue, the director went on to say that throughout her Park Service career she has "worked with archaeologists, historians, biologists ... and often we don't sit down and listen to their information that they've gathered."

In the case of Yellowstone and snowmobiles, the science has time and again illustrated that the park's resources would be stewarded better by phasing recreational snowmobiles out of Yellowstone and relying on snow coaches to move visitors about the park. Unfortunately, as the scientists themselves pointed out on page 20 of their report on how snowmobiles affect Yellowstone's wildlife, politics can at times trump science.

What's so striking in the Yellowstone matter is how strongly worded the science is in terms of what's best for the park's resources, its visitors, and its employees. Even after park officials retreated a bit from their initial preferred alternative, which would have allowed for up to 720 snowmobiles per in in the park, down to 540 a day, impacts stand to be felt across Yellowstone.

In their report, "Behavioral Responses of Wildlife to Snowmobiles and Coaches in Yellowstone," the wildlife biologists came to the conclusion, after monitoring winter conditions in Yellowstone from the winter of 2002-03 through the winter of 2005-06, that wildlife would best be served by over-snow traffic with 250 or fewer snowmobiles per day.

“…we suggest regulations restricting levels and travel routes of OSVs [over-snow vehicles] were effective at reducing disturbances to these wildlife species below a level that would cause measurable fitness effects. We recommend park managers consider maintaining OSV traffic levels at or below those observed during our study.”

However, the latest preferred alternative supported by Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis more than doubles the allowable traffic levels from where they've been when those studies were conducted. In a letter sent this past week to Director Bomar, the presidents and executive directors of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and the Winter Wildlands Alliance urged the director to reject Superintendent Lewis's course of action.

The choice made in the new 'Preferred Alternative' is thus to exceed—by over 100 percent—the traffic threshold at which Yellowstone’s wildlife experts stated that over-snow vehicles could become a more severe or prolonged 'stressor' to Yellowstone’s wildlife, with the potential to adversely affect the fitness of the park’s animals.

In contrast, the Snowcoach Alternative in the Final Environmental Impact Statement emphasizes a mode of access that results, according to NPS statistics, in one vehicle for every 7.7 visitors, rather than one vehicle for every 1.3 visitors. It would thus allow 960 visitors to access and enjoy Yellowstone’s attractions each day with just 120 vehicles. This would be well within the traffic level recommended by wildlife scientists and just one-fifth the level of over-snow traffic that would move through habitat used by bald eagles, bison, coyotes, elk and trumpeter swans under the new 'Preferred Alternative.'

More so, the groups told Director Bomar that Yellowstone officials resorted to a weakening of existing regulations pertaining to the protection of the park's natural resources so they could justify their preferred alternative.

In effect, what NPS has done is justify degradation of resources by changing the standards of measurement at the end of the process. As an example, the FEIS merely states that the “Desired Condition” for wildlife is: “Impacts to wildlife are mitigated, and effective wildlife habitat is protected.” Mitigation of impacts to wildlife does not, obviously, define a condition. It simply states that there will be an effort to make the harm caused to wildlife by over-snow vehicles less severe or serious. Historically, NPS has acknowledged that its legal responsibility in regards to protecting wildlife is established through regulations and Executive Orders that prohibit disturbance of wildlife. Thus, under the new “Desired Condition” standard, the Park Service makes it acceptable to allow ongoing disturbance of wildlife whereas previously the agency has deemed such disturbance unacceptable and illegal. It is now okay under this definition to simply lessen the impacts to Yellowstone’s wildlife, rather than adopt policies that don’t allow it. Similarly, this new standard reduces habitat protection by eliminating the historic goal of minimizing “to the greatest degree practicable” adverse impacts.

The science speaks for itself. Hopefully, Director Bomar will have an opportunity to personally look at that science before she signs off on Superintendent Lewis's preference when it comes to snowmobiles.

"I do feel the Park Service has always monitored, inventoried, and studied their resources and know more about their resources than we've ever know," Director Bomar told me last week in Austin. "We just need to listen and we need to implement their recommendations."

In the case of Yellowstone snowmobiles, the recommendations are to ease back on snowmobiles in the park, not throttle forward.

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Anonynous do you have any idea how much exercise you can get on a snowmobile. You have obviously never been on one and therefore have no idea what it's like, and furthermore snowmobiles are a way to get out and experience nature and if you knew anything about it at all you would realize that that is why alot of people snowmobile and that you can see alot more on a snowmobile than walking. You also talk about skiing. Did you even think for a second that skiing requires a lodge and lifts that will destroy alot more than a snowmobile trail that wildlife will actually use? Think of it this way, many people go out and take road trips along scenic routes to experience wildlife and scenery. Snowmobiles are the exact same thing except you don't go as fast and you're not enclosed so you're experiencing everything even more. Maybe takling away snowmobiles from Yellowstone would be the best thing but only because of pollution. I say maybe because with new engines coming out they are quieter and cleaner than ever. Snowmobiling has nothing to do with obesity or blood pressure because i guarantee you that most snowmobilers are more fit than non snowmobilers and it has nothing to do with a younger generation because snowmobiling has been around for a long time. I would be very happy if our generation was all for snowmobiles, but the popularity has declined because (people) like you telling people that snowmobiling is bad for you. It may "amaze" you that people are bringing in "motorized crap" but what amazes me is how much you're willing to bash something you obviously know knothing about. I can't beleive someone this stuipid could acually think he knows anything about what's best for people or Yellowstone.

Regarding science and emotions: Science can predict how much impact will be produced by "x" number of snowmobiles or snowcoaches. Science can not always tell us how much impact we should allow.

The beauty of the 2006 Park Management Policies is that they do not set an arbitrary limit to the amount of pollution (for example) or other impacts that will be allowed. Instead, these Policies state, “The NPS managers must always seek ways to avoid, or to minimize the greatest degree practicable, adversely impacting park resources and values.”

Further, for individual resources these Management Policies elegantly set resource protection measures that allow each Park to be protected to the maximum practical level for that Park. Therefore, the wildlife and soundscape protection measures at the Washington Monument are set differently than they would be in Yellowstone. The Policies require that both sites be protected to the "greatest degree practicable" given the unique attributes of that site.

Here's a sampling of some resource-specific protection measures afforded by the NPS Managment Policies:

Air Quality: NPS shall “seek to perpetuate the best possible air quality in the parks.”
Natural Soundscapes: "preserve to the greatest extent possible the natural soundscapes of the Parks.”
Use of Motorized Equipment: use “the least impacting equipment, vehicles and transportation systems”

While science may not be able to tell us how much impact is acceptable, it can answer the question, "Which alternative will result in the least impact to resources while allowing the public to access and enjoy their National Parks." With respect to Yellowstone winter use, the wealth of scientific study on this topic provides a clear, scientifically defensible answer, as the hosts of this site have already pointed out.

Dr. Jim

Frank is probably lamenting the fact that we both might consider enlisting the help of an editorial staff!

From my information, the Marshall Institute is and has been for quite some time the procuators of bad science as I attempted to define it above. Not objective, agenda-based garbage research techniques, precisely as you recollected. Who they choose or chose as bedfellows comes as less of a surprise to me than you might believe. Even the folks at NASA, the most respected group of scientists in government, as subjected to the inane directives of Congress, to whom they are beholden. While individual projects are generally well conceived and executed culminating in what would be deemed "reliable" data, the direction of the overall program is NOT, by any means, a legitimate independent scientific arm of the government. That little nuance disturbes me greatly. But where else is an organization such as NASA going to go begging for funding? For a number of years there has been an accountability issue within the organization, but when your funding comes with strings attached, who are the ones TRUELY accountable?

It would indeed be absurd for me to submit that scientists have no values. But I don't think I inferred that science is the determinate factor in the Yellowstone issue. Quite the contrary, I believe that my position was to utilize science as one and only one of the tools in the process. I am also a supporter of the position that even "good" science is not without fault; that is, there are multiple examples of good data being manipulated to support unsound reasoning, or hidden agenda, or for corporate gain, or.......well, you can fill in the blanks with your own list of abuses. But personal values aside, without objectivity, the design and execution, which are the only things that are of any scientific value and the legitimizing variables between compromised viewpoints whether its a Nielsen poll or a stem cell differentiation program. If one experiences difficulty separating their personal beliefs and values from the program, one has the duty to remove themself from the program so as not to compromise the integrity of the project. Similar to a judge voluntarily setpping down from a case in which they cannot remain impartial, such that the integrity of the trial will not be compromised, pure science demands the same impartiality or the whole program is worthless. The best science HAS to be done without becoming subservient to an agenda. Once an agenda is mandated the rest is meaningless. It is my belief based on my industry experience that the fallacy lies within the practice of science being conducted as a determinent factor, which is against everything I stand for, was taught and have taught. I guess that's the biggest reason I didn't follow E&E and instead went into chemotherapeutic research. Way much politics involved in ecological and environmental issues, as we have seen. That an I didn't want to spend eternity as a glorified statistician. But after being jaded by the Big Pharma experience, and the up-close and personal look at politics driving research, I decided pure research held a much more attractive future, albeit less profitable. But again, I digress.

In response to Beamis, I don't believe Director Bomar has enough arrows in her quiver to make a sound, informed determination on this issue. The power she indeed possesses, most unfortunately for the rest of us, and she's not afraid to wield her mystical sword as she sees fit. However, I highly question her ability to see clearly based on her previous comments.

Wow Jim! you certainly can write a provocative blog that cuts the sinew to the bone. I'm glad to see that your a local on this website, I tend to follow your blogs with sharp concentration and focus. I know where your coming from on this issue, my father was a gifted research scientist at a very prominent university were similiar tactics were used to distort and discredit valuable and meaningful research. Much as he enjoyed his work, he also sold his values to the evils of unjust men...called compromsing with the devil! The booze finally killed him!! Anyway, thanks for sharing your indepth work experience at G.C. Marshall Insititute.

So getting back to the question at hand, is Mary Bomar making the correct decision? Is there a definable set of standards and criteria to guide her in this matter? Does she have the political power to completely ignore overwhelming evidence that indicates that her decision could adversely affect the environment of Yellowstone? I say of course she does. Career survival and advancement in the NPS is always way more important than the fate of a mere park any day of the week, even majestic and venerable Yellowstone. That's why the only people in the agency that publicly speak out are safely retired and receiving their monthly checks.

This should be a critical turning point in how the NPS is judged in conducting its job of resource stewardship. We are all watching this in slow motion and it shouldn't be too hard to discern whether or not valid science is being ignored by the director.

I have my opinion, what about the rest of you?

Lone Hiker,

I have a lot of experience with the politicization of science. I don't disagree that it's heinous to take something that's value neutral, use it to support a certain set of values, use money to support only those people with the credentials to regurgitate your own point of view, and then use resources to amplify the point of view "as scientific." I think my point of view is that the response to that heinousness can be dangerous because people can go on to conclude fallaciously that science supported by an agenda is therefore no good (which assumes that science can be done simply by scientists who have no values, which is absurd). It can also lead people to the fallacious conclusion that un-politicized science will determine the question of what to do about snowmobiles in Yellowstone, which it doesn't. Science, not politics; science, not emotions is not a mantra that does as much as people sometimes believe. So, I had two points; objectivity is not what's void of emotion, or value; it's what is true regardless of emotion or value. Secondly, de-politicizing the science won't actually answer the policy questions involved; it will only help on a very narrow scale. It's also not clear how well that can happen in a world where science and policy also meet (which wasn't one of my two points, but something else besides).

Now, I do have experience with this. When I was working on my Ph.D. in philosophy at Catholic University, I was fairly poor, trying to support the cost of living in Washington, DC, while I studied. So, work was a necessary addition to me, even though I received free tuition. I finally landed a job at a place that I very quickly discovered after accepting the job was a very right wing think tank called the George C. Marshall Institute. They claim that they are a non-partisan organization interested in the de-politicization of science. In fact, their two main issues that they use supposedly to highlight this mission are the issues of climate change and the issue of a missile defense system. In their case, they argued that there is no evidence that humans actually are causing global warming, and they argue that we need a missile defense system now and that the science supports putting up some system immediately. They received sums of money from right wing foundations like Scaife, and they were also funded by the oil industry. My job was simply as a kind of receptionist, lowest level admin, for this very small ineffectual organization - just one among a number of satellite organizations funded by the same people to serve as skeptics on climate change. I hated it, but I wanted to see firsthand how this works, and for awhile, I contented myself as a kind of Robin Hood, who got paid too much to do as little as possible, while learning all kinds of ridiculous things about the way right wing organizations work through think tanks. Our organization was thoroughly incompetent and far too small to matter, but we continued to do enough to justify to our funders that we were relevant.

Anyhow, one of the most egregious things that I witnessed at Marshall was when we were putting together a directory of climatologists as a guide to media and others researching climate change. It was simply a directory of addresses, contact information, and specialty. As far as climatologists, we put both skeptics and non-skeptics to the list; however, a lot of other non-climatologists were being added to the list. All of these people were skeptics. When a couple of us sought to balance this, knowing that our credibility would be shot as a non-partisan, non-ideological organization if we weren't consistent in our criteria, the President of the organization (a former head of the American Petroleum Institute) shot it down. When we argued that it would look better for us, especially on something as innocuous as a directory, if we were consistent, his response was something I'll never forget. He said, "Why should we give aid and comfort to our enemies?" He had just put all his cards on the table and proven that he had no interest in anything but promoting the skeptics' agenda on climate change. (This was only one small example; we used to have press releases ready on missile defense tests ready to release as soon as the test was successful but nothing at all sometimes if a test turned out to be a failure).

Once, this President came up to me and told me he expected a call from the Vice President's office (yes, Cheney) based on a conversation they had had during one of his vacations to Jackson Hole. Just by coincidence, this guy was taking his vacations to Jackson Hole the same time Cheney was. I always suspected that this had to do with the secret meetings Cheney was alleged to have been having with the oil industry. Here he confirmed to me that he was meeting with Cheney and not just on vacation. The info was so sensitive that he didn't even want the Executive Director to know that he was expecting this call. Here I now had firsthand evidence of what Cheney was then keeping a guarded secret, that he was meeting with oil people to talk and strategize over climate change.

This same guy was also still a registered lobbyist with the oil industry. One Executive Director resigned after challenging him on that. The President held strongly that his two hats were separate. Umm, no, they were never separate. He wasn't even a scientist, but the scientists at the organization were not any better. Some really believed; however, all used dubious assertions and claims if it kept their funding sources happy. You had astrophysicists making plugs for clean coal, in one case that comes to mind.

So, I know firsthand about this and have seen inside an organization that was using the de-politicization of science as a smokescreen to further politicize science. It was disgusting, and finally getting fired for slacking off was about the best thing that happened to me. I was already an activist; I had seen enough of this world.

And, yet, having seen all that, I am perhaps more convinced of my initial two points, perhaps because all that time in the office around this issue forced me to think about the intersection of values and science. When reading our reports, I needed to know how I could separate the chaff from the wheat. There were a lot of ufair criticisms of the Marshall Institute as well, often based on various ad hominem arguments. Being in that position, you realize more and more that science has been overblown in our society as an arbiter, and that everyone wants a piece of it. Yet, perhaps there are other reasons behind what we should do on issues like climate change and missile defense that don't depend on what the science says or doesn't say is possible, answers that are accessible to everyone. I was and am certain that there are.

And, as for who these wicked people are, I've said more than enough that just a little research will tell you, or I'll gladly share offline. This was years ago, but many of the same people are still in the same game, and some are actually true believers - you can't simply look at their funding sources; they really believe in the science they have done. That was always refreshing, even if you still thought the whole enterprise sickening.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Science can indeed be classified as either good, insofar as being soundly researched and executed, or poor, referring to it being targeted toward a specific agenda or hypothesis, but I would tread lightly around the term proven. Even a preponderance of evidence doesn't automatically qualify as proven beyond a given measure. At best, it lends credence to one's position, but the meaning of the term proof is something science prefers to leave in the courtroom environment, to be bandied about and abused by the legal profession. The entire purpose of research is to gather data and let those data guide the investigation to its' eventual end, be it in support of the original hypothesis or not. If the weight of these data support the hypothesis, and the experimental protocol can be duplicated over time by independent researchers or teams, only then does the hypothesis evolve into an accepted theory. If the evidence serves not to support the intent of the experimentation, so be it. You then follow the new course that the data charts for you, and follow IT until you have enough evidence to support the new hypothesis. The true purpose behind any scientific exploit is discovery, whether it follow the original intent of the process or not is completely irrelevant. It's always nice to be correct in your initial assumptions, but it's also a far cry from the norm. The term serendipity best describes how the majority of discoveries were and are found throughout the history of most branches of science. That's why we're taught that Rule #1 is "always keep your eyes and mind open", as observation and conclusion are the mother of all discovery. Any idiot can find what they're looking or manipulate data sets to support poor experimental design that allows them to "discover" that which they seek if they follow the poor science methods. Such are the fantasies of the closed mind. But most often the clues are subtle at best and hidden at worst, and without the ability to dig beyond the obvious and truly see all that is presented, most of what would be the more noteworthy accomplishments and greatest discoveries would have remained forever lost.

Should it be the sole arbiter? God forbid! Not in ANY instance, nor should be the sole determinant for ANY issue. But the service that it can lend should neither be completely ignored. In our modern world, science functions as a tool, an aide, a crutch, a compass, an additional source of information from which conclusions can be drawn. Unless, of course, you're Director Bomar, and you're too busy to read that which was commissioned specifically for your very benefit. Science was never intended to serve as the "be all, end all" in any forum. But what other method of gathering information is currently available that serves the same purpose as scientific research, and if they exist, are they any more reliable than the current methods?

For the record Jim, the politicization of science is the worst form of evil, as it subscribes to the "poor" scientific methods that are an abomination to the field as a whole. Science and politics cannot co-exist. Science is the elimination of specific agenda, which is the diametric opposite of politics. It's oil and vinegar, night and day, positive and negative poles of the battery. Politicos not only seek but require justification, science seeks NOT to justify, but hypothesize and investigate. The last time anything was deeply investigated on the Hill was during the Watergate era, and where did that get us? Science in politics equates to a Surgeon General, who cautions against smoking, trying miserably to save face for a government who lives off the revenues generated by, while simultaneously fiscally supporting that very same industry that the "official chief government scientist" abhors. Politicization of science is an FDA who protects the Big Pharma more than it does the American consumer. Countless times in just the past 2-3 decades, drug discoveries that were made in other countries were put on the FDA "banned" list, not due to any factor except that which allowed for profits to be made by overseas research firms. But yet, who allowed Big Pharma to be the first to jump on the "generic equivilent" knock-offs once the initial proprietary periods had expired? Our same two-faced FDA. Yet at the same time, do I need to mention either the company names or the compound names that was forcibly removed from circulation due to an accumulation of patient deaths, due SOLELY to improper clinical trials and manipulated data by the manufacturer? Did anybody bother to print the "behind the scenes" story of why these clinicals were rushed through the system? Did anyone bother to investigate and discover that again, Big Pharma was about to be beaten to the punch by off-shore competition, and stood to lose BILLIONS in R&D and God forbid, future profits, had they completed their studies "by the book", so instead the FDA allowed, nay, FACILITATED their gamble and approved experimental drugs that were responsible for the deaths of DOZENS of patients world-wide? I could carry on, but this should give you a pretty good idea why the marriage of science with politics makes for a nuclear meltdown waiting to happen.

I don't particularly have a strong opinion on the science because I'm woefully ignorant of those things. It is interesting to read the conflicting views on the science, but I'm usually not in the business of arguing about things I don't pretend to know. This is helpful information.

Now, on the second question, you say first that science serves as an "emotionless arbiter." First, I think that's something of a false dichotomy. Rather than say that any judgment is without emotion, it is more precise to say that any sound judgment is true regardless of emotion. That distinction might be subtle, but we have to be careful. A triangle, for instance, has three sides regardless of whether it is equilateral, scalene, or isosceles. However, there is no such thing as a triangle that is not either, equilateral, scalene, or isosceles. There is no such thing as a scientific judgment that is uttered without emotion, unless judgments can exist without judges. However, that something is a triangle does not depend upon the type anymore than a sound judgment depends upon emotion.

The point in all of this is that people with emotional biases are not necessarily acting without sound science. The science should be able to stand on its own regardless of what someone believes, and sound science, if there is such a thing, does not require arbiters who don't have opinions and emotions about things. The reason we seem to care about this and become cynical and suspicious, for instance, of an oil industry study on climate change, is because very few of us understand the science enough in order to come to our own conclusions. In that case, we are not judging science but whether we trust a source. Many of us who are not scientists end up basing our judgments about these matters not on science but on trust; in many cases, that is a reasonable response because so often our suspicions turn out to be right.

You go on to assert that science should at least guide questions that involve the environment. I don't think I'd dispute that, but the question is how so. What does science actually show? Science can show, perhaps, that a certain number of snowmobiles will pollute the air in a certain way and will have such and such effects on various features and wildlife. That's certainly very useful information when we are presented a question of whether snowmobiles should be allowed because it clarifies the shared reality in which we make value judgments. However, it is not science that answers the "should"; it only does so assuming that people have the same set of shared values and the same interpretation of those values to the specific situation in which the science applies. What should govern those values? And, even if we can determine those (for instance, one answer might be the laws that currently govern Yellowstone), the application of those values to a specific situation is always going to be subject to further value judgment. These are not scientific questions.

I think one can make a scientific case (that is observe, measure, and document) that the disputes about snowmobiles in Yellowstone are only secondarily questions of science but foremost questions of values. Though there seems to be some dispute over the science (for instance, snowmobiles versus snowcoaches), there is greater dispute on the purpose of national parks, specifically Yellowstone National Park, and more specifically the best way to use and regulate use of Yellowstone National Park in the winter. Even you resort not to science but rather an aesthetic argument at one point to justify keeping this argument about over-the-snow vehicles rather than automobiles.

I don't believe we will move forward in this until people stop using science as a smokescreen (a snowstorm?) blocking our view from the critical values issues that have to be tackled, and beneath those, the ontological assumptions behind them that drive values discussions. When it comes down to it, this is not really about science. This is about how well science conforms to values. That doesn't make science irrelevant; it just means that from a policy standpoint, it is not ultimately the scientists as scientists who should make these decisions.

However, if it's not scientists as scientists, and the political system is not responsive to the value judgments of the people whom they represent (and no way of knowing whether those value judgments are in any way sound), what is there to be done?

Now, that's getting ahead of ourselves; if people don't follow my points that far, there's no way to get at the larger social implications.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

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