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Federal Judge Blocks Recreational Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park


Will there be recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone this winter? NPS photo.

A federal judge, ruling that Yellowstone National Park's decision to continue recreational snowmobile use in the park runs counter to science and the National Park Service's conservation mission, has tossed out the park's winter-use plan.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan's ruling, while sure to spur more legal battles, throws in doubt whether there will be recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks when the winter season gets under way in mid-December.

"We've got to figure out what it means. We don't know where we go from here," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said this afternoon. "The judge was very clear that he took issue with some of our analysis and decision-making. It's up to our winter-use planning staff and Justice Department attorneys to study this so we know how to move forward."

In his 63-page ruling, which was stinging at times in its criticism of the Park Service's interpretation of its own Organic Act, Judge Sullivan held that while the Organic Act does call for public enjoyment of the national parks, "(T)his is not blanket permission to have fun in the parks in any way the NPS sees fit."

"As plaintiffs articulated at the hearing, the 'enjoyment' referenced in the Organic Act is not enjoyment for its own sake, or even enjoyment of the parks generally, but rather the enjoyment of 'the scenery and natural and historic objects and wild life' in the parks in a manner that will allow future generations to enjoy them as well," wrote Judge Sullivan in today's ruling. "NPS cannot circumvent this limitation through conclusory declarations that certain adverse impacts are acceptable, without explaining why those impacts are necessary and appropriate to fulfill the purposes of the park."

The winter-use plan was challenged by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, the Winter Wildlands Alliance, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“This ruling reaffirms the idea at the heart of our National Park System—that the duty of Yellowstone’s managers is to preserve the park for the sake of all visitors, and to place the highest value on protection of Yellowstone’s unique natural treasures,” said Tim Stevens, senior Yellowstone Program Manager for NPCA.

“This ruling will ensure that visitors are not disappointed by air and noise pollution when they make the one winter trip to Yellowstone of their lives,” said Amy McNamara, National Parks Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “We take our hats off to the tour businesses that didn’t wait for this ruling. Their increasing investments in modern snowcoaches are already making it possible for winter visitors to access and enjoy Yellowstone while protecting it.”

At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, leaders were calling for Yellowstone and National Park Service officials to accept the judge's ruling and work harder to protect the parks' resources.

"They should be quietly praising this whole thing instead of continuing to obfuscate the whole question in my judgment," said Bill Wade, who chairs the coalition's executive council. "It should be very clear where they go from here.”

Mr. Wade said Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis should have the authority to pass an emergency rule to allow a limited amount of snowmobiling in the park this year while her staff moves to develop a winter-use plan in line with Judge Sullivan's ruling.

That said, the coalition believes snowcoaches -- not snowmobiles -- should transport winter visitors in Yellowstone because the coaches are safe, quieter, less polluting, and less impacting to wildlife than snowmobiles.

During the past 11 years the Yellowstone snowmobiling saga has seesawed back and forth. While the Clinton administration on its way out of office issued a directive that snowmobile use be phased out of the park, the Bush administration immediately stayed that when it took office.

A series of legal challenges -- some by conservation groups, some by snowmobile advocates such as the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association -- alternately pulled the Park Service in opposite directions. The latest decision came last November, when Yellowstone officials approved a plan to allow up to 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches per day into the park -- despite research that concluded such levels would impact park resources.

When the coalition of conservation groups announced its legal challenge to the plan, it noted that the Park Service disclosed in a study accompanying its decision that allowing 540 snowmobiles into Yellowstone each day would dramatically expand to 63 square miles-the portion of the park where visitors could expect to hear snowmobile noise during more than half of the visiting day. That would be a three-fold increase from the current portion of the park where noise intrudes on the visitor’s experience during at least half the day.

The groups also noted that in its Final Environmental Impact Study accompanying its decision, the Park Service acknowledged that Congress established the National Park Service in 1916 in part due to a recognition that the American people “wanted places to go that were undisturbed and natural and which offered a retreat from the rigors and stresses of everyday life.”

Judge Sullivan found more than a few problems with the National Park Service's conclusions in approving the winter-use plan (WUP). Among them:

* The court finds that NPS fails to articulate why the WUP's impacts are 'acceptable.' NPS simply repeats the above standards in the context of the WUP's impacts on soundscapes, wildlife, and air quality, but fails to provide any supporting analysis of how the impacts relate to those standards.

* The ROD (record of decision) makes no effort to explain, for example, why impacts on soundscapes characterized as 'major and adverse' do not 'unreasonably interfere with the soundscape' and cause an unacceptable impact.

* Similarly, NPS fails to explain why increasing the amount of benzene and formaldehyde to levels that broach (and sometimes exceed) the minimum risk levels applicable to hazardous waste sites does not 'create an unsafe or unhealthful environment for visitors or employees.'

* ... NPS provides no quantitative standard or qualitative analysis to support its conclusions that the adverse impacts of the WUP are 'acceptable.'

* As with soundscapes and wildlife, the court finds that NPS has failed to articulate why a plan that will admittedly worsen air quality complies with the conservation mandate.

In his conclusion, Judge Sullivan found that the winter-use plan "clearly elevates use over conservation of park resources and values and fails to articulate why the plan's 'major adverse impacts' are 'necessary and appropriate to fulfill the purposes of the park."

"NPS fails to explain how increasing snowmobile usage over current conditions, where adaptive management thresholds are already being exceeded, complies with the conservation mandate of the Organic Act," he wrote.

While this ruling was being digested today, Yellowstone's winter-use planners were joined by Department of Justice attorneys in Cheyenne, Wyoming, before U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer. Judge Brimmer, who in the past has ruled almost completely opposite Judge Sullivan on the snowmobile issue, was conducting a hearing into a lawsuit brought by the state of Wyoming and Park County, Wyoming, over the winter-use plan's 540-snowmobile-per-day limit as well as its requirement that snowmobilers be led by commercial guides.


All this makes no sense to me. Being an avid snowmobiler myself I hear about this debate constantly and to my knowledge snowmobiles aren't allowed off the trail and have been mandated to become four-stroke motors which not only reduces emissions to that of or even less than the automobiles that enter YELL every day, but it also reduces the noise pollution that these vehicles put out to that of or less than that of automobiles.

They do make perfectly quiet snow transportation with zero pollution. It's called cross country skiing.


The outbreak of massed hostilities in Europe over the summer of 1914 riveted & consumed (horrified) America, President Wilson and the Congress (destroying, as they did, much of the civilized world). So intense was the political climate that by June 1915 the Secretary of State William Jennings Bryon had resigned in protest over Wilson's quiet bias for Great Britain over Germany (the President and the United States were publicly & officially neutral).

That the U.S. did not send troops to Europe until late in the War does not alter the impact of events on our Congress. The passage of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 remains embedded within and dominated by the overpowering circumstance of World War I.
But, my previous comment was of course in reply to Kurt's earlier challenge:

"But where would you start [to revise the Organic Act]? Should each application of "conservation" be replaced with "preservation" in the Act? Should the sections Ted referred to earlier regarding livestock grazing and logging be struck? While it's already clear that the Organic Act places preservation of park resources above enjoyment of those resources, does that section need to be clarified or strengthened?

How far would you go with a revision?"

My comment above replied to Kurt's question, saying it is unlikely there will be a 'surgical' remedy to the 'crudities' of the Organic Act; that if anything the Act would be swallowed up in a broad reform of the motley ensemble of related historic legislation intended to safeguard our natural heritage.

And, that it is environmentalism itself that primarily stands in the way of that happening. Thus, it is the diminishment of their capacity to obstruct, that most likely would present the opportunity to reform. Do see my previous comment for the details.

Notice that Kurt also introduces the notion of "conservation" versus "preservation". I did not deal with this matter previously, but will give it a pass now.

That environmentalism divides into 'conservation' and 'preservation' camps is a major reality which is normally kept closeted with the other skeletons. Preservationism dominates in public affairs, and typically promulgates a one-sided message, carefully ignoring that there is another (very large) aspect to environmentalism.

Why did Kurt mention this schism within environmentalism, in connection with the possible reform of the Organic Act?

First of all, the 'objections' to the Organic Act - the provisos for logging, grazing, etc within Parks - are there at the behest of conservationism. And more than likely, those provisos are still protected by conservationism, 92 years after the Act became law. Plus many other factors, often much more complex & sophisticated.

In other words, so-called 'good' (i.e., 'preservationist') environmentalism isn't going anywhere, without their 'conservationist' counterpart (with whom they are joined at the hip, and who increasingly hold the purse-strings ... and own the massive land-holdings bought with donations & membership fees).

Although it is common to read preservationist-oriented literature that conveys the impression that conservationism was replaced generations ago by more enlightened views of the environmental ethos ... nothing could be farther from the truth.

I will go so far as to say that rhetorically, the actual dynamic in the later part of the 20th C. settled into an arrangement wherein conservationism agreed to feed preservationism all the rope they think it'll take to hang themselves.

The #1 theme, the rallying-flag and the battle-cry of preservationism has become Global Warming, caused by the selfish & meritless actions of humans. The rhetoric has been ramped up in round after round of escalations ... in which conservationism does not participate.

Preservationism is taking itself further & further out onto a limb, stacking up more & more chips in the middle of the table on an increasingly hair-raising gamble, insisting that earth's climate really and truly will unfold in a particular fashion, and for particular reasons.

Conservationism stands on the sidelines, taking notes. Maintaining political & corporate contacts. Accumulating real estate.

At the present time, the most likely opportunity for serious legislative address of the motley state of U.S. environmental law appears to lie in the aftermath of the failure of the "AGW", Anthropogenic Global Warming model (over-promoted by the preservationist-wing of environmentalism).

In that context, conservationists will have retained their credibility, and they hold vast amounts of desirable acreage. It is they, not the higher-profile preservationists, who will be in a position to negotiate on the floor of Congress. It is even possible that conservationism could formally merge their holdings with those of the National Park System, creating a new system ... and do so in accordance with conservationism-concepts.
To wit. Near me on the Olympic Peninsula is the Hoh River, partly within, partly outside Olympic National Park. It is the wettest & wildest temperate rainforest watershed in these United States, bar none. Two hundred inches a year. It is a veritable jewel, causing any flavor of environmentalist to salivate involuntarily.

A conservation organization called Hoh River Trust has been buying private land along the Hoh, outside the Park. Last I checked, they had about 4,000 acres. This is the most productive timber land in the entire USA ... bar none. And they will be logging it - carefully! - and using profits to (guess what) buy more.

Hoh River Trust is going to manage, use & grow the conservation-base.

This, I predict, is the future of environmentalism.

Please get your facts straight: The United States didn't enter World War I before 1917.

It may be, the first item in exploring a possible reform of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, is to ask what the context or 'provocation' of such a process might be.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002, for example, took advantage of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to consolidate & reform the legislation & status of a number of Federal agencies & Acts, many of which had long been eye-balled as targets of redress or reform.

The Organic Act of 1916 was approved in the midst of World War I, which is well-known for the unusual impact it had on the psyche of modern nations. Was this Act connected in some way to the events of the time, or was it more like 'left over business' just happened to percolate up the priority queue ... within the midst of the worst & most-shocking War of modern times?

Our body of environmental law, of which the Organic Act 1916 is simply one component, is a mish-mash & hodge-podge of odds & ends, overlapping & ill-fitting jurisdictions & agencies the overall effect of which acquired it's current form & (mal)function basically in the same way that a junkyard acquires its form & function. As an on-going accident of circumstance, context, and usage.

Legislators (who contrary of common evidence are capable of professional pride) could put a nice feather in their hat, by consolidating, rationalizing and updating the U.S. body of environmental law. They most likely, though, would need some context or 'provocation' to justify the investment of time, budget & political capital to do so.

Unlike the relatively obscure & indifferent 'political reality' of the 'junkyard' of disparate resources that were rationalized under the Homeland Security Act, our environmental law is the object of intense professional & emotional attention by certain constituencies of the general public. Other constituencies might be somewhere between amusedly & smolderingly indifferent. Or available at the right price.

Environmentalism-concerns watch Congress closely, to make sure nothing happens to 'their baby', without their approval. In other words, the status quo with respect to our environmental law is set & guarded by the presence & force of environmentalism, on the national stage. Not unlike the status of firearms law & regulation, which is monitored & hovered-over by well-known interest groups.

Rhetorically, that appears to be why we have logging & grazing in the National Parks today: because environmentalism resists opening the body of environmental law to reform. They are safer striving to ignore the unfavorable clauses in the law, and appeal instead directly to the public to create & maintain de facto standards & practices. If they expose the body of environmental law to the full process of legislative reform, they lose control of the topic and many other interest groups can intervene with legislators.

For something significant to happen with environmental law, something significant probably has to first happen with environmentalism. It is they who primarily create & keep the situation as it is and has long been.

That could theoretically be either positive or negative. Events elevating the stature of environmentalism could lead them to become so secure & powerful, that they could open the can o' worms of environmental law with a high degree of confidence that the process could be controlled and the outcome aligned with their preferences.

However, to wield this kind of power would make them challengers to the Federal Government itself. If NGOs become too powerful, it is expected that Congress etc will take steps to protect themselves from the upstart. Thus, in practice, any putative significant change in the status of environmentalism that would permit reform of environmental law, would more likely be negative.

Eco-terrorism could do the trick. It would not take a very high level of destructive activism to alienate the public and broadly discredit environmentalism.

Severe economic distress could so alter the priorities of many, that environmental issues could simply fall by the wayside. As the Organic Act of 1916 itself was enacted from within the depths of World War I, another crisis could simply sideline enviro-forces and open a window for Congress to 'clean house'.

The phenomenal degree to which environmentalism has gambled its reputation & credility on climate change, and the putative human causes thereof, may have placed the movement in peril. They have talked themselves so far out onto the climate-limb, that for global climate trends to now unfold in any way different from their highly dramatic projections could pose a severe socio-political problem for them.

Global warming peaked around 1998, flat-lined, started cooling, then dove dramatically last year. Next year could very well be even more dramatic - to the extent it begins to dominate 'mainstream media', which so far is abetting its environmentalism-ally by minimizing cooling-trend reports.

We are now reading articles that "Arctic Icepack is the Second-Lowest Ever Recorded!". What really happened is, Arctic icepack rebounded dramatically this summer, due to pronounced global cooling last year, but it's being spun as though it's part of greenhouse warming. It's not.

Loss of control of the climate-change narrative, and the attendant loss of public stature, could materially change the role of environmentalism on the national stage ... and could even facilitate environmental law reform in Congress.

> Those truly "crown jewels" should designated for maximum preservation. Yellostone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Crater Lake, Glacier, Grand Canyon, so on.

Those parks, you dub crown jewels, are anything but. They are hot spots of the global tourism industry and accordingly managed that way. If you run Yosemite with the focus on protection, you would have to tear down each and any installation in the valley.

The editors and the readership of the Traveller assume, that the National Parks are the most protected areas in the nation. They are not. Real protection is done in wilderness areas, of which some are inside National Parks but most are not.

There are a number of National Wildlife Refuges (run by the Fish and Wildlife Service), that are simply closed to humans, in order to protect the wildlife. Huge tracts of Hanford Reach National Monument (FWS) in Washington State are closed to visitors because they are reserved for ecological research and visitors might disturb that. The recovery areas in the main blast zone of Mount St. Helens can be seen only from a handful of established foot trails, no visitor may leave those trails. And some sensitive parts simply have no trails running in their vicinity. Mount St. Helens is run by the Forest Service.

The National Park System was invented for tourism ('as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people') and tourism is an important factor in management. If you want real protection, don't give the area to the NPS. On the other hand, this does not mean National Parks should be Disneyland. But the balance between protection and tourism is much more complicated than some here assume.

Kurt Repanashek wrote:

But where would you start? Should each application of "conservation" be replaced with "preservation" in the Act? Should the sections Ted referred to earlier regarding livestock grazing and logging be struck? While it's already clear that the Organic Act places preservation of park resources above enjoyment of those resources, does that section need to be clarified or strengthened?

How far would you go with a revision?

All good questions with a broad spectrum of answers, depending largely on your political affiliation. And that's part of the problem. The modern Liberal sentiment might be status quo. No revision--maybe some patch work--and throw more money at the problems. The Neoconservative approach might increase corporate/governmental [s]collusion[/s] "cooperation" and label it "reform" or "privatization". The classical liberal (or libertarian) approach would localize management of individual units under conservation trusts.

At the very least, the National Park Service should be exempt from the whims of politicians, so we can avoid the situation as FrankN describes it: "It may have more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, but depending on the political climate (the current one for example) you could make things a whole lot worse."

So the first step in revising or rewriting the Organic Act is to remove the National Park Service from the Department of the Interior if not the federal government itself. If it is to remain under federal purview, it must be insulated from politics to the maximum extent possible. We must reign in Congress's pork barrel parks and increase the standards for what should be considered a national park. To further insulate parks from Congressional politics, a stable funding source must be found. Perhaps a one-time 10-year allocation of funds can get the new National Park Service going. We've had the discussion on another thread about making parks more self-sufficient and trimming the fat from the nearly 400-unit system.

Then, when adopting a new charter for this streamlined National Park Service, the emphasis should be placed on decentralization. The NPS currently spends more on system-wide administration than the operating costs of the 58 National Parks in the system. The revised or completely replaced charter should be simple and to the point. Like the federal system of government the United States used to enjoy, it should be limited in scope. It should set the standard for all National Park Service units. Individual park units should also create new charters, and those charters must follow the basic guidelines of the national charter. From there, however, individual parks would be able to more finely craft their charters to the specific needs of that individual park and locality.

The national charter should set the standards for national park status. It could mandate protection at different tier levels. Those truly "crown jewels" should designated for maximum preservation. Yellostone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Crater Lake, Glacier, Grand Canyon, so on. Another tier of park units, if these units are even to be retained, could either focus more on preservation or conservation, depending on the individual unit.

I've heard it said that rethinking the National Park Service is like "throwing the baby out with the bathwater". But this is no baby. The Organic Act is a terminal patient. As Kurt mentioned, the Organic Act was written 92 years ago, before the auto took over, before rapid jet travel, before we sent people to the moon, before the establishment of modern scientific fields of wildlife biology, the theory of plate tectonics, massive extinctions, and on and on. The Organic Act is from a world that no longer exists, and it's not fair to bind the current generation to the outmoded, unscientific, and uninformed views of those who lived a century ago. The future preservation of our national parks cannot be found in a bygone era's relic. The future preservation of our national parks can only be found in the present.

"There is created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service, which shall be under the charge of a director. The Secretary of the Interior shall appoint the director, and there shall also be in said service such subordinate officers, clerks, and employees as may be appropriated for by Congress. The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified, except such as are under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Army, as provided by law, by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
I'm not sure that you would want to mess with the Organic Act. It may have more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, but depending on the political climate (the current one for example) you could make things a whole lot worse. Kind of like people who want to "rewrite" the ESA. Once you open a can of worms, no telling what might crawl out! Someone might decide that there is oil under the Grand Canyon, and fickle constituants, weary of four or five dollar a gallon gasoline, might well cry, "Drill, drill, drill!!"
"Road building? Who's talking about road building? Well ... you, mainly." No one is talking about road building. It's called sarcasm. They are called rhetorical questions and remarks.
"Snowmobiles don't need roads, remember?" THAT IS PART OF THE PROBLEM! That is why current snowmobilers in Yellowstone are required to have a licensed guide, because too many folks either did not know, or did not care, that YES, IN YELLOWSTONE, SNOWMOBILES DO REQUIRE A ROAD!! By law, snowmobiles may only be operated in Yellowstone on the road. And then only on certain roads. (BTW, even licensed guides occasionally wonder where they shouldn't.)
I have personally witnessed snowmobilers run wildlife off the road into deep snow. I have seen them chase coyotes down the road until they (the coyotes) were exhausted and dropped in their tracks. I have had snowmobiles blow exhaust (and snow) in my face. I have heard snowmobiles while snow shoeing miles from the road, as if they were just on the other side of a hill.
Mr. Macdonald, excellent points regarding the cost of visiting Yellowstone in the winter. Either way, snowmobiles or snow coaches, you better be prepared to plunk down a pretty piece of change. Another example of a place I would like to go but can't because of my financial disability (deep into the interior in the winter). Reasonably priced shuttles summer and winter would go a long way toward making Yellowstone more accessible to all, including the physically challenged.

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