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How Did The National Park Service Err So Badly On the Yellowstone Winter-Use Plan?


Why is it so difficult to protect Yellowstone in the winter?

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.

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Wow, all this talk when their is a simple answer, Political Pressure.


I will certainly grant you, that corporations & industries spare no effort or expense to drum-up & excite consumer interest in their wares, and that often enough this situation does seem to fly in the face of our better interests.

But it's sure not a problem for which we can uniquely drag snowmobile manufacturers on the carpet. Look at how TV targets little kids. Look at food-advertising, turning nutrition into a circus of perversions.

Yes, I see that Tesla corporation is involved with the power-trains for the new General Motors "Volt" hybrid-electric car, and this is indeed an exciting development. (Please note, that with hybrid-electric technology, we will be able to plug our house into our car ... and retire the PUD! I like independence! ;-)

But. The horsepower-to-weight ratio of the average snowmobile is right around 1-to-5. In the average 3,000 pound automobile, that translates to a 600 horsepower engine. Top-end high-performance snowmobiles boast horsepower ratios of 1:3. That equates to an even 1,000 horsepower grocery-gitter.

Track-mounted vehicles (snowmobiles) are inherently inefficient. Snowmobiles are doubly-so, because they are plowing through soft, high-drag material. They need a lot of power to do what they do. Without the power, it ain't gonna happen.

For those of you who are especially keen on the prospect of electric snowmobiles, I recommend one or both of two lines of thinking. First, if you keep a snowmobile on firm, groomed surfaces, the necessary power to operate the machine is very drastically reduced. And, on a firm surface, you can load 500 pounds of golf-cart batteries under the seat, and the weight won't force you down into a hole in the snow. Of course, on a hard, groomed surface, you don't need a snowmobile anyway. ;-)

Second, shift your attention away from track-mounted vehicles entirely. Think instead in terms of an ATV with exaggerated balloon-tires, and forget about going fast. Wheels are much more efficient than tracks, and slow takes much less power than fast. That approach will give you a 'real' machine ... your only problem then will be figuring out how to sell enough of them to make it worthwhile for some manufacturer to produce them.

I do like & support electric transportation goals & technology ... but history has shown this is not a field for people who need results right away.

Ted (and others),

I believe one thing that hasn't been emphasized in this discussion is that of increasing use of mechanical devices such as snowmobiles (and ATVs elsewhere). The popularity of these vehicles has exploded in recent decades and is now being seen by many as overwhelming. I believe that many beyond those typically categorized as subscribing to environmentalism would agree as to the increasing numbers (and impacts) that are plainly seen by their popularity and use.

Don't forget the importance that a deep pocketed industry has in creating this situation. We are flooded with ads by snowmobile and ATV manufacturers telling us how much fun it would be to have one of these toys. These ad campaigns are paying off and sales of these machines are exploding.

As a final note, you may want to catch up on the current state of electric vehicle technology. It has progressed quite a bit recently. Look up "Tesla" when you get a chance.


I agree with much of what you say here, though West Yellowstone is growing more and more culturally complicated, which adds to the angst that many of the old timers feel. Cody is still a bastion for the sort of person you are talking about; West Yellowstone is larger and more diverse.

But, I'm vexed by everyone. I often find myself understanding quite well what drives a lot of the old timers nuts; there's plenty of intellectual dishonesty on all sides.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World


I did make a couple over-night/weekend visits to West Yellowstone from my military station at Idaho Falls, 1972-3. Seemed like a regular little backwater (or as we fondly say, 'dirt-bag') town. Snowmachines were still very early then ... but your description of the culture jibes with what my expectations would be, even from that far back.

The 'culture-war' component that I pick up from your description, I would guess has probably intensified in many rural communities. Emboldened, too. Next time you drive through, I bet it's plastered wall-to-wall with signs for Gov. Palin & That Old Dude.

Being obnoxious & rude, if I understand correctly, is what the locals use for ammo, in the Culture-War. And the Liberal factions return fire by defaming the Trogs in every way conceivable.

"We need the fiction of pure places and evil machines that defile them."

Verily, I think you capture the true spirit of it.

The "process" that so vexes you, Jim, I think is intended to do that. It is intended to sweep up those who think they will engage & strive for honorable solutions. It's designed, IMO, to dissipate the honest impulses of principled folks. Why? It helps keep the many & small distraught & dissipated, and the few & big in relatively secure control.

For example, to lead you to acknowledge that your car is no less an affront to Nature than some West Yellowstone redneck's blatting snowmachine, you are unwittingly manipulated into 'threatening' the 10s of millions who hear talk of eliminating automobiles, and sense instantly that the speaker is their enemy.

"Watch David Suzuki on Thursday evening TV? Sure, fine. No more automobiles? That's crazy." Click - they turn you off.


My point about snowmobiles and their use for the poor has mostly to do with Arctic areas where they are the main means of transportation. I can't imagine that they are for too many people in these parts. But, there are a lot of indigenous people in the Arctic regions who depend on them to survive. I have absolutely no interest in supporting the snowmobile industry as it exists here in this country or any other industry for that matter.

As for the attitude toward snowmobiles themselves, there's no doubt real hatred toward the machines. I hate them; I have a gut dislike for them. When I drive into West Yellowstone in the winter, the air is disgusting, many of those riding the machines are rude and obnoxious. It is a strong cultural feeling. I don't want them even in the National Forests. I don't want them in town. I don't want them anywhere. I really dislike them. But, I think I am smart enough to know that my dislike for these machines and my not quite so strong feelings about other machines - like my car - is not reason enough for me to fit a rationale ad hoc to fit my strong aversion. Even so, is there not a reason to wonder what we are doing to a place we love by allowing these things in - and be willing at the same time to follow it to its logical conclusion (even if that might sweep our cars under as well)?

So, yes, I'll concede that there's a strong emotional hatred driving things as well, but at the same time it's not a hatred that is necessarily devoid of reason. People are driven to stronger emotional reactions because something rationally is off kilter. If someone really said that the scientists concluded that snowmobiles were not harmful to the environment, even those of us who hate the machines would at least say they are being consistent with themselves. We wouldn't be as angry. And, really, I'm not angry personally about snowmobiles - because I really think there is a pox on every house here - but I hate this process. I hate how meetings are organized, how decisions are made, how the EIS process is such a charade. I am angry that people don't sit down and consider the larger issues at stake, I am angry that this place is being held hostage by the fruits of industrialization (that grew things bigger and bigger to the point we have no idea how to care for them). Snowmobiles are but machines - they are beside the point - the problem is us and our attitude toward each other and toward the planet that leads to a world where we are honestly pissed off over freaking snow machines. What a messed up and bizarro world this is.

And, I think at some level, some form of that realization drives people to find symbolic targets for their angst. We need the fiction of pure places and evil machines that defile them. Because, something truly is afoul, and beauty is possible, but the reduction is so easy. And, when something goes against it, when something hits to the core of what doesn't make sense, people go up in arms. The snowmobile enthusiasts hate the intrusion on freedom in a world that seems more and more restricted, the environmentalist hates the continued abuse to the world we inhabit - not by law, not by simple snowmobiles, not simply by an emotional drive - but by something truly and rationally afoul. If we would look at that seriously, we would get somewhere. It's too easy to point at laws, to point at scientific studies, to pretend as though we are working on a stable framework (the parks and forests systems, as one example) in which to explore these things. But, it's so much more than that, and if we truly care, then why don't we put our passions to good use, to look at these things seriously. How did we get here? Why are we here? What should we be doing? And, since we need specificity to those questions, let's talk about them in the context of the places that mean most to us, or the people or beings that touch us the most. There's no reason that the snowmobile issue - which hits people at some core - couldn't serve as the focal point for truly serious discussion.

But, on and on we go ... so what will the next court decide? And, what will it matter? It won't. But, so much sweat and tears will go into it. These are the days of our lives.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Anonymous, and Kurt;

Ok, since my characterization of the 'mentality' or 'correct-thinking' issue embedded in main environmentalism themes is distracting from the actual discussion-points, I will set aside that 'device', and work to frame a more-palatable way of illustrating the point I'm making.

True, Kurt, importantly true, there is a range of 'attitude' among environmental organizations ... though a dominant view has asserted itself in recent times (that environmentalism is properly "preservation" and that "conservation" is something else).

My father taught me to shoot, from the prone position using Grandpa's (relatively low-powered) .30-40 scabbard-Krag, when I was about 5 or 6. It seemed the recoil would almost lift me off the ground. I value my firearms and hunting highly ... but I am not a member of the NRA. I have thought about joining: especially the recent reversal of the Parks' firearms regulation, and the dramatic advent of Gov. Palin and everything she represents, give me impulse to 'put my two-bits in' - but I haven't.

A major part of the problem the NRA poses for myself, is indeed the mental & attitudinal liabilities ... that I've agreed to find other ways to express.

Actually, I do not "disagree" categorically with environmentalism: but I do see & describe a serious weakness in what they are & how they work, a liability that could be so costly as to effectively remove them from the public stage in the future.

The NRA would like to define me as an extension of my firearms ... and then take upon themselves the authority to define weapons. Environmental organizations likewise seek to define me in terms of my relationship with the environment ... which they then want to define.

I have affiliations to both, but join neither.


Your point is well taken.

To succeed in court, the other side must have violated the law. If you use a lawsuit just as a weapon, you need very deep pockets, because if your claim is unfounded, you will lose the lawsuit and lots of money. Environmental organizations are not known for suing lightly. But if a government agency is acting in violation of the law, a lawsuit might be necessary to stop them.

My point was probably too broad and unspecific. I was refering to our tendency to litigate rather than to negotiate over polarized issues. You are indeed correct that a sound legal basis must be present to make a lawsuit worthwhile. However, groups like Audobon Society have very deep pockets, and can easily steam-roller over smaller, less well-funded groups. I also agree that lawsuits may become necessary to stop even gov't. agency illegalities, but should only be used as a last resort, not as an SOP.

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