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The Yellowstone Precedent
As the latest decision on permitting snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park draws to conclusion, the question of the impact that decision will have comes up. To those closely following the issue, the National Park Service's stance could have devastating effects across not just the park system, but over all public lands.
Yellowstone long has been considered by many as the crown jewel in the national park system because it is the world's first national park. Such a position leads many to hold Yellowstone up as the gold standard when talk turns to conserving resources and preserving landscapes. As a result, the thinking goes that if the Park Service doesn't take the extra step to preserve that incredible national park, how will it manage lesser-known wonders?
At issue is Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis's decision to support a plan that would allow up to 540 snowmobiles per day in Yellowstone beginning with the winter of 2008-09. That's up from the current three-year average of roughly 250 snowmobiles, but down from the previous ceiling of 720 snowmobiles per day.
Those who support phasing snowmobiles out of the park contend that decision was made possible only by a "tweaking" of resource standards by Yellowstone planners. Not only has the decision spurred questions about whether the Park Service is properly interpreting the National Environmental Policy Act, which "requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions," but also whether the agency is meeting the letter of its own Management Policies.
"Now what's appalling about this decision is the only way they could get to 540 was to water down the park protection standards that go along with this," Don Barry, an assistant Interior secretary for fish and wildlife and parks under the Clinton administration, told the Association of National Park Rangers during its annual conference in Utah last month. "And the worst offense of all, they watered down the ones for wildlife harassment, for air protection, and noise. And the worst of all was what they did with the noise protection standards. They redefined in that EIS what a major impact on the soundscape was for Yellowstone National Park because of snowmoibling.
"And they defined the new standard of what a major impact was to require that the noise be heard over 20 percent of the entire park. Now you could have an atomic fart and you would not hear it, you would not hear it over 20 percent of the national park. But that's what they had to do in order to justify and to authorize 540 snowmoibles a day."
Yellowstone officials seemingly have developed a thick skin in discussing the snowmobile decision. When asked whether park planners altered some of their resource standards to help justify Superintendent Lewis's decision, spokesman Al Nash did not specifically address that question but instead spoke of the park's efforts to maintain high environmental standards in the park while allowing "a range of appropriate winter recreation opportunities..."
"The NPS Management Policies of 2006 require analysis of potential effects to determine whether actions would impair park resources or cause unacceptable impacts. The revised preferred alternative does not constitute impairment of or unacceptable impacts to park resources," Mr. Nash said. "In fact, all alternatives contained in the Final EIS are in accordance with all applicable laws, regulations, rules, and the 2006 National Park Service Management Policies."
Not everyone agrees with Yellowstone's position. Indeed, conservationists believe the snowmobile lobby, not science, guided the park's decision. And they fear that not only will the entire national park system suffer if the preferred alternative is allowed to stand but all public lands managed by the federal government because politics, not science, prevailed.
"I believe that allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone violates the (National Park Service) Organic Act and the Management Policies because the science shows they cause adverse impacts," said Elizabeth Fayad, general counsel for the National Parks Conservation Association. "I believe that if NPS is allowed to make decisions that are contrary to what the science shows, and that is OK under NEPA, other agencies will also be aggressive in reaching conclusions that say they have considered everything in the record but the decision is one that is contrary to the science."
As an example, Ms. Fayad pointed to the ongoing differences some conservation groups have with the Park Service's position to allow personal watercraft in the waters of some national seashores and lakeshores.
"Personal watercraft have been found to have adverse impacts in some parks and I suppose all those uses would be allowed," she said. "Many times proposed uses in parks are found to be inappropriate but there is no finding of adverse impact. Since inappropriate is a lesser finding than adverse impact, would all those uses be permitted? This is part of the (Bush) Administration's attempts to find that the parks' purpose of preserving resources for future generations is not the primary goal of the system--that recreation is considered an equal goal."
Just as closely following the Yellowstone snowmobile saga, which has cost the Park Service roughly $10 million in environmental impact statements and environmental assessments, is Kristen Brengel, The Wilderness Society's point person not just on snowmobiles in Yellowstone but also on off-road vehicle matters.
"I think it is accurate to say the ripple effects would be felt beyond the Yellowstone region and park system," Ms. Brengel said. "In the last year, the (U.S.) Forest Service began to implement its new travel planning regulations. The new regulations address summer uses like ATVs and dirt bikes not winter uses.
"If a forest or ranger district chooses to, they can zone for snowmobile use under those regulations," she continued. "It is no secret that the Forest Service is not pushing its employees to take on winter travel planning. The main reason – Yellowstone."
If the Yellowstone snowmobile decision stands, Ms. Brengel fears what might transpire on lands managed both by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
"Since 2001, Congress has put over $300 million into BLM resource management planning including travel planning. Many travel plans for National Monuments and wilderness-quality lands in Utah are terrible – the plans favor the off-road vehicle industry and community by allowing a spider web of roads and routes all over these places," she pointed out. "If Yellowstone doesn’t have the spine to stand up to the industry, will the BLM? If Yellowstone mangles up NEPA, doesn’t that provide a blueprint for other agencies?
"This could be a terrible precedent – coming from someone who works on travel planning with all of the land management agencies."
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees has been a tireless opponent of snowmobiles in Yellowstone, working hard to convince Park Service managers that the noise and pollution produced by snowmobiles are not compatible with Yellowstone's landscape. Bill Wade, who chairs the group's Executive Council, worries about the downstream ramifications of Superintendent Lewis's position.
"We’ve said a number of times that this issue will be a major precedent in other areas of the national park system in terms of how the Management Policies will be interpreted and implemented, not only because this is probably the first major test of the MPs but also because of the stature of Yellowstone," said Mr. Wade.
Closer to Yellowstone, at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, national parks program director Amy McNamara believes the general public should demand that the Park Service follow the recommendations of its scientists.
"Rightfully so, Yellowstone is seen as a bellwether for this country's national park system. As America's first national park and the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Yellowstone is viewed as a crown jewel of the National Park System," she said. "If the Park Service is unable to make science-based decisions that prevent resource impairment in Yellowstone, what chance do parks like Big Bend or the Badlands have for science-based management?
"Yellowstone has the largest team of biologists and natural resource staff of any park in the country...the public should be outraged that the recommendations of the Park Service's own experts are being ignored."