How did the National Park Service err so badly in developing a winter-use plan for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks? According to a federal judge who blocked the plan from taking effect, the agency overlooked its own science and its own mission.
"According to NPS's own data," writes U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, "the (winter-use plan) will increase air pollution, exceed the use levels recommended by NPS biologists to protect wildlife, and cause major adverse impacts to the natural soundscape in Yellowstone. Despite this, NPS found that the plan's impacts are wholly 'acceptable,' and utterly fails to explain this incongruous conclusion."
In his damning, 63-page ruling, handed down September 15, the judge picked apart, one by one, the National Park Service's rationales for determining that Yellowstone's resources -- the wildlife, air, water, soundscape, even employees and visitors -- could endure upwards of 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches a day during the winter months.
Not only did the agency botch its responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act, according to Judge Sullivan, but it failed to follow the federal government's Administrative Policies Act, ignored its own National Park Service Organic Act, and couldn't "articulate why the plan's 'major adverse impacts' are 'necessary and appropriate to fulfill the purposes of the park.'"
Indeed, the National Park Service -- at least when it comes to snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton -- seems to have lost its way in the woods in deciding that playing in the parks is more important than conserving the parks and their resources for the enjoyment of future generations.
"This is not blanket permission to have fun in the parks in any way the NPS sees fit," the judge wrote in referring to the Organic Act.
This is not to say the a national park visit shouldn't involve fun. Rather, it's reinforcement that the National Park System harbors some wonderfully magical places that are special on their own merits, that enjoyment should flow directly from their resources, that they are not simply playgrounds open to any and all forms of recreation.
"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 the wild life' in the parks in a manner that will allow future generations to enjoy them as well," noted Judge Sullivan. "Accordingly, while NPS has the discretion to balance the 'sometimes conflicting policies of resource conservation and visitor enjoyment in determining what activities should be permitted or prohibited, that discretion is bounded by the terms of the Organic Act itself.
"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."
Indeed, it seems the National Park Service ignored the very legislation that established Yellowstone when it reached its winter-use decision.
"The Yellowstone Enabling Act, the federal statute governing the agency's administration of Yellowstone, requires that the NPS preserve 'from injury or spoliation' the 'wonders' of the park and insure 'their retention in their natural condition,'" the judge noted.
So what happened? How did the National Park Service get so off-track? Why, when National Park Service Director Mary Bomar told the Traveler last fall that sound science would guide the agency's decisions and that "we make good decisions based on good information," did the winter-use plan fail to hold up under judicial scrutiny?
The answer isn't so mysterious or elusive. Political agendas, short and simple, were driving the process at Yellowstone, not science. That's not an earthshaking revelation. Indeed, Director Bomar's predecessor, Fran Mainella, told us last fall that Interior Department officials were calling the shots when it came to snowmobiling in Yellowstone. And politics again were cited when Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis bowed to the wishes of the state of Wyoming and Cody, Wyoming, to agree to keep the park's East Entrance open to snowmobiling no matter the cost.
No, what's more disturbing is that these trends persist, that top Park Service managers won't refuse to let science be trampled by politics, that the general public's wishes are being trumped by special interests. The process of managing the national parks might not be irretrievably broken, but it certainly seems to be jeopardizing the health and well-being of the National Park System.
"They either went willingly or unwillingly," Tim Stevens, the Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, replied when asked how the National Park Service in general and Yellowstone officials specifically arrived at the wrong solution to managing winter use. "Given the massive, proven intervention shown on Sylvan Pass, I think you can more than speculate about which it was."
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade adds that the kowtowing to special interests is not a new phenomenon.
"We have been extremely disappointed that the Yellowstone superintendent, the Intermountain Regional Director (Mike Snyder) and the NPS directors (Ms. Bomar and Ms. Mainella) have failed to exercise the required levels of principled leadership in defending the resources of the park against the efforts by special interests and the political leadership of the Department of the Interior and above," says Mr. Wade, who chairs the group's executive council.
"There were several opportunities during the past seven years to do exactly that – by standing up, selecting the right alternative in the EISs or, in the face of the political pressure saying, 'this proposed decision is inconsistent with the law, with the science, with the NPS policies and with what the American people want Yellowstone to be,'" he adds. "They failed at every turn to do that, and by doing so, encouraged a continuation of the inconsistencies and perpetuated a huge expenditure of scarce dollars to keep 'studying' the issue, in hopes of finally getting a solution that the political leadership and special interests wanted.
"In our judgment, that is unforgivable. There is no right way to do the wrong thing."
Is the problem confined to the Yellowstone snowmobiling decision? If the National Park Service thought it could ignore its own science and manipulate the Environmental Impact Statement process in Yellowstone -- not just the world's first national park but arguably its most iconic -- what's driving decision-making in the other 390 units of the National Park System?
"Rather than protect Yellowstone, they decided to justify harming it. Judge Sullivan picked up on this at the oral argument and stated it in the decision," points out Kristen Brengel, a director at The Wilderness Society who long has followed not just the Yellowstone snowmobile issue but also the use of personal watercraft and off-road vehicles in national park units.
"The Park Service prioritized snowmobiling over protecting the Park’s visitors, employees, wildlife, and air," adds Ms. Brengel. "One of the key areas the DOJ attorneys focused on was the 'unacceptable impacts' section of the NPS Management Policies. This shows the true intent of that standard that was added to the Management Policies (in 2006). It was a way to justify negative impacts to parks-- not uphold the conservation mission of the agency.
"During the debate of the Management Policies, the Park Service kept telling me that it was a way to improve management, including to allow adaptive management. Now, it is clear, that it was a political move and should be taken out of the policies in future iterations."
Removing politics from the process won't be easy. In fact, it probably can't be completely accomplished. But steps must be taken to ensure a process that not only is more fair, but which, in the words of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Director Bomar, is driven by sound stewardship and science.