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Yellowstone Snowmobiles: Has Apathy Arrived?

Yellowstone National Park; 'oh_candy' photo via Flickr.

Yellowstone National Park; photo via Flickr

Run a breathtaking, and alarming, video of brown bears about to be slaughtered and there's an outpouring of emotion, angst, and vitriol against the National Park Service for allowing such a hunt.

Mention that the National Park Service is fully behind snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, where science has demonstrated they're a blight on the landscape, and there's a collective shrug of the shoulders. Has apathy settled in on this issue?

For sure, the snowmobile issue had been hanging over Yellowstone for far too long, well into seven years since President Bush reversed the Clinton administration's ban on recreational use of the snowmobiles in the park. We've endured roughly $10 million worth of environmental impact statements, and one environmental assessment, on the place of snowmobiles in Yellowstone, and all have pointed out the park's wildlife, air, soundscapes, visitors, and even employees would be better off without them.

Now, unable to produce scientific studies that say the snowmobiles are not harming the park's resources, the administration has decided that it will allow them just the same, even employing some statistical slight of hand to make it appear as if it really is reducing snowmobiles' impacts on Yellowstone.

If you've been keeping note these past seven years, you know that the current temporary winter-use plan allows for up to 720 snowmobiles a day in the park, and that during the past three years the average was closer to 250. But that didn't prevent the Park Service from describing its preferred alternative, the one that allows up to 540 snowmobiles a day in the park, as being a reduction in snowmobile use in the park.

But there seemingly has been no outrage over this numbers game. Indeed, mainstream media seems to have largely ignored the snowmobile issue this fall, as neither the New York Times nor the Los Angeles Times, which in the past have closely covered this topic and even editorialized against snowmobiles in the park, seem to have noticed the Park Service's latest preferred alternative.

Is Yellowstone, the world's first and grandest national park, any less sacrosanct than the brown bears in Katmai National Preserve?

Why is it that the Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis overlooked the collective wisdom of seven of the last eight Park Service directors who have urged that recreational snowmobiling be phased out of Yellowstone because it runs contrary to a number of sections of the Park Service's very own 2006 Management Policies:

* ... the Service will seek to perpetuate the best possible air quality in parks...
* The National Park Service will preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the natural soundscapes of parks.
* Where such use is necessary and appropriate, the least impacting equipment, vehicles, and transportation systems should be used.
* NPS managers must also seek ways to avoid, or to minimize to the greatest degree practicable, adverse impacts on park resources and values.

"I can't understand how the superintendent can make a decision that seems to me is injurious to the park resources. If I were the park superintendent of Yellowstone, I'd rather be sued by the snowmobile industry than by NPCA," says Rick Smith of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "You can't run a park by litigation. That's just not an appropriate way.

"If you have to litigate, let's be on the side of conservation, let's be on the side of resources, let's be on the side of natural quiet, let's be on the side of unimpaired wildlife, let's be on the side of minimizing air pollution, and not on the other side," he adds. "And that seems to me where Yellowstone is going at the present time."

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Will Park Service Director Mary Bomar also turn her head at both these former directors as well as the Management Policies? Will she ignore the findings of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staff that allowing more than 250 snowmobiles per day into Yellowstone could compromise human health? Will she overlook Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's pledge to President Bush, in his cover letter to the Centennial Initiative Report, that "stewardship and science will guide decisions"?

"Science and the results of scientific research can be manipulated. And it seems to me in this case they've been stretched and manipulated," says Mr. Smith. "It seems to me there is a question about the integrity of Yellowstone's interpretation of the research results, which by the way their own scientistits are doing. We're not talking about contract scientists.

"Moreover, when an agency like the Environmental Protection Agency -- which in the Bush administration I don't think you can claim is a cutting-age environmental agency -- when it raises questions about Yellowstone's interpretation of the research results, I think there are some real things to think about in terms of how Yellowstone is interpreting those research results and whether Secretary Kempthorne's pledge that science would prevail is actually being carried out in this case."

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What, or who, is driving the Park Service to endorse recreational snowmobile use in Yellowstone? Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a huge proponent of snowmobiles, no longer works for the government. Paul Hoffman, an assistant Interior Department secretary who favored snowmobiles, no longer holds sway in the agency. Former Park Service Director Fran Mainella, who also backed snowmobiles, is in the private sector.

Why is the Park Service allowed to overlook hundreds of thousands of public comment letters that endorsed a ban on snowmobiles in the Park, some of which Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash claimed lacked substance because they were form letters?

With the politics that swirl around this issue and even trump science and when the public time and again gives its voice and opinion to the Park Service when asked to only to be seemingly ignored, is it any wonder apathy has come to roost over the topic of Yellowstone snowmobiles?


Frank, the anti Gore sentiment is already out...check FOX News! Gerald, in all due respect, but I suspect your so called Ph.D. doesn't give much insight or credence to the subject given. Give us some hard evidence to support your howlin anti environmental stance regarding the issues with the Katmai bears, and why we can tolerate more pollution in Yellowstone National Park with added snowmobiles in the park. I don't see were your logic or deductive and inductive thinking rewards you with a Ph.D...certainly your comments don't indicate this. Sorry no offense!

Jeremy's right. We shouldn't point out, for example, when people use ellipses excessively and erroneously. Instead, we should focus on issues and the arguments. For instance:

The Material Safety Data Sheet for unleaded gasoline shows at least fifteen hazardous chemicals occurring in various amounts. These include benzene (up to 5% by volume), toluene (up to 35% by volume), naphthalene (up to 1% by volume), trimethylbenzene (up to 7% by volume), MTBE (up to 18% by volume) and about 10 others.

You won't find any of those chemicals coming out of Ol' Faithful, any chemicals (like sulfur) are highly localized and not carcinogenic like benzene or MTBE.

While wildlife may not care about vehicles (although I'm not sure how that could be demonstrated), vehicles and pollution (including noise pollution) affect them (and us). Vehicles and roads alter migration patterns and kill millions of animals each year. And in Homo sapiens, air pollution fatalities exceed traffic fatalities by three to one.

Finally, some people would like to "calm down and enjoy life", but that is nearly impossible when you're on snowshoes when stinky machines zoom by destroying peace and solitude of wilderness.

(PS, Al Gore won the Nobel Prize--I'm sure more peevish conservative backlash will follow.)

Am I to understand that on the one hand, a criticism is justified regarding that bicycle you ride or that pack you carry with its petroleum-based fibers and petro-powered machinery that sews it, and these things are considered offensive, but that in the previous breath, since as you say, snowmobiles are "artificial" is enviro nonsense...we humans ARE part of the ecosystem, that includes our machines that God granted us the wisdom to produce , these machines that we have produced in our wisdom are somehow addeptable, but the same petro-powered machines that sew backbacks are a blight? Talk about self-serving logic!

Having never been inside the Hard Rock chain, let alone actually taken the time to read the countertop propaganda in any establishment that I have visitied, I have no idea whose philosophy it might mirror, nor do I much care. I speak from statistics gathered from within the county I currently reside, and those state that since 1950, wetlands in our area have diminished by over 90%, and tillable farmland has decreased by over 75%, all lost to private developers and their insatiable economic lust to provide such essentials of our modern society as strip malls, fast food franchises, big box stores, and or course, single family housing and the assoicated infrastructure (e.g., access roads, parking lots, highways, etc.) required by an expanding populace. I also can point to several credible surveys encompassing much of the country east of the Mississippi River valley that will generally draw the same conclusions, albeit with some slight variance in the actual percentages. I envy you if indeed your particular geography has not been subjected to the same manner of environmental abuses that are quite common to the majority of the nation, including many areas in the west.

Kurt, you are quite correct in stating that science does indeed not drive policy. How can something that 95% of the general public is ill-equipped to understand be a driving force in public policy? That's also why these data are largely ignored by political groups, as they are no better educated in the long-term scientific implications than is the constituents whom they serve. Why rely on data when you have smoke and mirrors? At least this political method doesn't lend itself to the hazards of being disproven, as happens after the fact with scientific analysis. After all, the politicians are just acting in the best interests of the public, right?

And by the way, while your grading, the term "sez" isn't in the dictionary. Typographical errors happen. That's why I hate "Spell Check" and the like; they make any earthworm appear as though they actually have the ability to produce properly formatted and acceptable documents. Talk about someone who needs to lighten up.............

Gerald: You may be new here, and your contributions are welcome, but please criticize the argument, not the person. We are all bound to make grammatical errors occasionally, and these should not be used as the basis of an attack.

No Kurt, the dangerous precedent was allowing the very first "environmental impact statement" which led all the other "scientists" (actually enviro ambulance-chasers) to go for the taxpayer dollars at every opportunity every time someone thought the sky was falling.
Our parks were just fine before jewelry (radio collars) were placed on every critter...perhaps many have been stressed to endangered status....
The bison are not harrassed...I have spoken with many rangers who (off the record) tell me that there are strict rules in place that work...the real harrssment comes from the enviro groups who try to put words in their mouths.
...and Lone Hiker, your argument that snowmobiles are "artificial" is enviro nonsense...we humans ARE part of the ecosystem, that includes our machines that God granted us the wisdom to that bicycle you ride or that pack you carry with its petroleum-based fibers and petro-powered machinery that sews it.
...and your last paragraph sounds like talking points right out of the Greenpeace bible...gee, if the rainforest was disappearing as fast as Greenpeace and the counter on the Hard Rock Cafe sez, the whole planet must be deforested by now! Heck, we must not have any wetlands anymore either!
My, people are stressed-out!
P.S.: "Anonymous": Get out your Harbrace and please capitalize where it is proper to do so...I give you an "F" on your report....

Speaking of juck science Gerald, you should be the FIRST to realize that as an environmental scientist, your comments make absolutely no sense. The emissions from the geysers are part of the environment, and if you want to try and regulate or remove them, that's your call. You are correct in your observation that the earth is indeed resilient, which is exactly why the geysers are irrelevant to the local environment, and actually why the geysers are integral to the local environment. The snowmobiles are an artificial variable. They can indeed be introduced and removed from the equation and the results studies over time. But in no manner are the integral to ANY environment, just another convenience of the lazy sapien life form.

I take issue with someone of your alleged background standing behind the statement that the overall condition of the planet is qualified as healthy. Greatly diminished water and air quality, as evidenced by the current state of statuary and stone buildings in the Mediterranean countries, the rapid deforestation in equatorial regions, biological death of waterways due to acid rains and fertilizers, and the shrinking of our remaining wetlands are just a few causes for concern. No, the sky isn't falling. But I can't see things clearly through your rose colored glasses, either.


your questioning science and protection of mostly intact ecosystems makes me a little queasy as does haunted hiker's quick endorsement.

from an anthropocentric standpoint, we can't replace the quality of undisturbed ecosystems with mitigation sites, nor can disturbed sites so readily and quickly be as quality as the initial, undisturbed sites. nature, whatever the hell that is, may take back that road, but it won't have the same diversity of soil microbes, fungus, bacteria, etc. and general biodiversity... in other words, it won't be as good. and in this day in age, when man's reach is pretty impressive, i think we should, cliche or not, preserve all the parts, especially in national parks which were created mostly for just that. preserving.

nature will be there, with or without us, but what type of nature does man need? personally, i'd like something more than dandelions, uniform age forests, leafy spurge and cockroaches.

Is the sky falling? Perhaps, perhaps not.

But what does it say when park managers have to weaken the standards of what constitutes a major adverse impact in terms of noise to justify their decision to support 540 snowmobiles per day? What does it say when they have to lower the protection standards for wildlife harassment and air pollution to justify this decision?

Science is not guiding this decision, politics is. And that impacts not just Yellowstone, but the entire park system. This decision, if upheld, sets a precedent for what can be allowed in national parks. Down the road it just might prove much easier to allow snowmobiles, Jet skis, or other motorized craft in parks that currently don't permit them because of this decision.

Is it a travesty that $10 million has been spent, so far, on Yellowstone snowmobiles? You bet. That money could have been spent on much needier issues. But the real travesty, in my opinion, is the precedent this decision could create and how it will ripple throughout the entire park system.

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