Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar are being asked once again to stand behind their pledges that science will guide management decisions in the national park system.
While that was the request when Yellowstone National Park officials were debating whether to allow recreational snowmobiles to continue on in the park, now the focus is on Jet Skis (generically known as personal watercraft, or PWCs).
Earlier this year, when the Park Service kicked off its Centennial Initiative, the Interior secretary and Park Service director spoke glowingly of protecting the park system's resources for future generations.
* Stewardship and science will guide decisions, Mr. Kempthorne said in his cover letter regarding the Centennial Initiative to the president. An inventory of all wildlife in parks will be completed, a vital baseline to monitor change and adjust management. Strategic acquisitions will protect landscapes.
* Much has been accomplished and more remains to be done to fulfill a common American dream -- to leave things better for those who follow us, added Ms. Bomar in her own letter.
* This is not only a report to the president, but a pledge to the American people, who are the shareholders in the greatest system of parks and special places in the world ... a pledge that the men and women of the National Park Service will continue in preserving these wonderful places for the generations yet to come, Ms. Bomar added a bit later.
But with the Yellowstone snowmobile decision on its way to being finalized despite scientific reports from the park's own staff that Yellowstone's resources would be better off without snowmobiles, those pledges are being questioned.
Today a trio of conservation groups is asking the Park Service to reinstate bans against personal watercraft in Gulf Islands and Cape Lookout national seashores as well as Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. If the agency balks, the groups say they'll take it to court over the matter. (See attachment)
Back in 2000 the Park Service found that PWC use was inappropriate in most units of the national park system. At the time it said PWCs were "high-performance vessels designed for speed and maneuverability and are often used to perform stunt-like maneuvers." In March of that year the agency, which also found that PWCs can be harmful to the environment, conflict with other users, and constitute a safety concern, issued a final rule prohibiting the use of PWC in national parks.
However, shortly after the Bush administration took office the Park Service cited 21 parks where PWCs had been allowed and gave them two years to finalize rules to continue the use, if they thought it was appropriate. Six of those parks decided to ban the watercraft. In fact, at Cape Lookout, Gulf Islands, and Pictured Rocks, PWC use was discontinued from 2002 to 2006. Last year, though, the Park Service reversed itself and began finalizing regulations to allow PWC use back in these park units.
At Cape Lookout, a much more peaceful and secluded national seashore than its big brother just to the north, Cape Hatteras, visitors can enjoy 56 undeveloped miles of beach front along with four barrier islands. While the lack of development is a big plus for marine life and shore birds, PWC use seemingly conflicts with that setting and even the seashore's mission.
In February 2006, when Cape Lookout officials were going through the process to draft PWC regulations, they noted that:
"Some research suggests that PWC use affects wildlife by causing interruption of normal activities, alarm or flight, avoidance of degradation of habitat, and effects on reproduction success," read the Federal Register notice. "This is thought to be a result of a combination of PWC speed, noise and ability to access sensitive areas, especially in shallow-water depths."
A bit further the report notes that "...experts from around the country have voiced concern that PWC activity can have negative impacts on marine mammals, disturbing normal rest, feeding, social interactions and causing flight."
"Toothed whales (included dolphins) produce sounds across a broad range of communication as well as echolocation, a process of creating an acoustic picture of their surroundings for the purpose of hunting and navigation," the narrative continues.
"Watercraft engine noise can mask sounds that these animals might otherwise hear and use for critical life functions and can cause temporary hearing threshold shifts. Bottlenose dolphins exposed to less than an hour of continuous noise at 96 dB experienced a hearing threshold shift of 12 to 18 dBs, which lasted hours after the noise terminated. A hearing threshold shift of this degree would substantially reduce a dolphin's echolocation and communication abilities."
When the decision was made in 2001 to ban PWCs at Gulf Islands -- a 160-mile stretch of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, off the shores of Florida and Mississippi -- the Park Service supported that decision by explaining that “PWC use poses considerable threats to estuarine flora and fauna, pollutes waters essential to estuarine and marine health, poses unacceptable risks of injury to operators and bystanders, and conflicts with the majority of other longstanding uses of the Seashore.” Nonetheless, in May 2006 the Park Service reopened Gulf Islands to jet skis.
Today Friends of the Earth, The Wilderness Society, and the National Parks Conservation Association claim these reversals violate both the recently adopted Park Service Management Policies and a settlement agreement reached by the Park Service and Bluewater Network, a division of Friends of the Earth, in 2001. And they are calling on Mr. Kempthorne and Ms. Bomar to honor the Park Service's 2000 decision by reinstating the previous decisions to discontinue jet ski use at Gulf Islands, Cape Lookout, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
“The Park Service largely banned jet ski use based on findings that these machines threaten wildlife, damage water quality, and spoil other people’s visits,” says Danielle Fugere of Friends of the Earth. “The 2006 decision to re-open these parks to Jet Ski use without any new data appears to have been based on politics, not sound science.”
At The Wilderness Society, Kristen Brengel says that, “The mission of the national park system is not debatable. From the shores of Cape Lookout to the waters of Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks, these special places must be conserved for future generations. We hope Secretary Kempthorne and Director Bomar uphold their commitment to the mission of the Park Service and restore the protections for these park units by reinstating the bans on jet skis.”
“Our national park system holds some of our country’s most renowned beaches and wild lands,” adds Mary Munson of the NPCA. “All Americans should be able to enjoy these special places, not just for specific activities and definitely not for motorized recreation that damages waterways and disturbs the natural atmosphere.
"Jet skis are fine for some water bodies and can be enjoyed in lakes, seashores and rivers throughout the country, but in the national parks at issue here, their use violates a national standard of protection. We hope the Interior secretary and National Park Service director will allow future generations to visit the parks free of disturbances by ending damaging and dangerous jet ski use in Cape Lookout, Pictured Rocks, and Gulf Islands.”