A day later than planned, National Park Service officials today signed off on their record of decision to continue snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The ROD, called a "shocking stewardship decision" by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, more than likely will be challenged in court down the road.
The decision signed by Intermountain Regional Director Mike Snyder comes in spite of overwhelming public opposition to snowmobiles in Yellowstone and despite science that indicated more than 250 snowmobiles a day could cause health and resource problems.
Those facts didn't prevent the regional director from hailing the decision to continue snowmobile use.
"This decision is responsive to public comments and in full compliance with the 2006 National Park Service Management Policies," Regional Director Snyder said. "Working with the community, we've also found a way to manage Sylvan Pass access while addressing visitor and employee safety concerns."
As expected, the ROD allows for up to 540 snowmobiles and 83 snow coaches to skim daily through Yellowstone beginning with the winter of 2008-2009. In Grand Teton, the decision allows for up to 25 snowmobiles a day to travel the Grassy Lake Road, and another 40 a day will be allowed on Jackson Lake.
While snowmobiles and snow coaches in Yellowstone will have to be "Best Available Technology" machines and led by commercial guides, those requirements are not being implemented in Grand Teton.
A significant change from Yellowstone's preferred alternative is that this decision will allow continued snowmobile use of Sylvan Pass on the east side of the park. Previously, park officials had said that the pass was too dangerous due to frequent avalanches to allow over-the-snow traffic. To minimize avalanche danger, the approved plan calls for helicopters and howitzers to be used to control avalanches.
The ROD also calls for snowmobile levels for the past three winters -- up to 720 BAT machines a day, led by commercial guides -- to be allowed into Yellowstone this winter.
Regional Director Snyder's decision was quickly condemned by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which said the plan would:
* nearly triple the area in Yellowstone where snowmobiles will be audible, from 21 square miles to nearly 63 square miles;
* ignore the advice of wildlife biologists who said more than 250 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone would cause undue stress on the park's wildlife, and;
* "Throw Yellowstone's imporving winter air quality into reverse. The choice of 640 snowmobiles per day would increase carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon and particulate pollution beyond what it has been the past several winters, and result in over three times more carbon monoxide and 13 times more hydrocarbon emissions than a full transition from snowmobile to snow coach access would produce."
Some thought the ROD went against a pledge Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Park Service Director Mary Bomar made earlier this year to let science guide management decisions in the parks.
"Only a year ago there was a fight for the 'very soul of the National Park Service' in order to assure it had Management Policies that reflected law and upheld the agency's fundamental mission to conserve the national parks," said Maureen Finnerty, a member of the coalition's executive council and former NPS associate director for operations. "The NPS displayed uncommon valor in working with concerned parties to assure that this policy framework was not discarded.
"Director Bomar and Secretary of the Interior Kempthorne pledged their support of these policies and vowed that conservation of resources would remain the top priority in America's national parks. It was the right pledge," she continued. "Yet the first real application of the 'gains' made in that success betrays those who fought so hard on behalf of the American public. This decision does not adhere to those policies nor will it inspire those in the agency who fought so hard to prevent the management policies from being dismantled."
Today's decision goes against the wishes of seven of the last eight Park Service directors. Those seven, who served in the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, wrote Secretary Kempthorne earlier this year to urge that he phase out snowmobiles and allow snow coaches to handle winter visitors. It also runs counter to hundreds of thousands of Americans who took the time to comment on Yellowstone's winter-use proposals. According to the coalition, four out of five comments on those plans endorsed snow coaches over snowmobiles.
"This is a decision that shatters all confidence in the ability of the National Park Service, under this administration, to faithfully apply good science," said Rob Arnberger, another member of the coalition's executive council. "Officials have incorrectly asserted that the decision reflects the science, while their own scientists disagreed. This is a decision that has twisted science to meet a political agenda."
Bill Wade, who chairs the executive council, invoked former Park Service Director Newton Drury in assailing the decision.
"Over 65 year ago, NPS Director Newton Drury admonished us all. He said, 'If we are going to succeed in preserving the greatness of the national parks, they must be held inviolate. They represent the last stands of primitive America. If we are going to whittle away at them we should recognize, at the very beginning, that all such whittlings are cumulative, and that the end result will be mediocrity.'
"Today's decision is a huge whittling, a deep, wounding slash even," continued Mr. Wade. "We are extremely saddened that NPS Director Bomar failed to defend her pledge and courageously stand up and assure a decision that meets the intent of law and policy firmly established and prevailing since well before Director Drury."