Officials at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, concerned about a a judge's ruling that blocks recreational snowmobiling and snow coach use in the parks, are searching for a way to get around that ruling.
Early Friday evening the parks issued a joint release in which officials said they and their staff, in consultation with attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of the Interior, were looking at a range of options that might provide for motorized over-snow access this winter.
The release pointed out that the parks' winter-use plan "would have allowed up to 540 commercially guided; cleaner and quieter snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches a day to enter Yellowstone this winter" and another "40 unguided, (Best Available Technology) snowmobiles a day on Jackson Lake (in Grand Teton) to facilitate ice fishing, as well as 25 snowmobiles a day to travel on the Grassy Lake Road."
What it didn't mention was U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan's finding that, "According to NPS's own data, 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."
Friday's release from the parks pointed out that, "The discretionary authority of the superintendents of the parks is limited to actions in accordance with regulations. Therefore, they cannot simply issue an order to open the parks to snowmobile or snowcoach travel this winter."
And yet, if you turn the calendar back to December 2007 you'll notice that officials for the parks pretty much did just that. They resorted to using the Administrative Procedures Act to get Yellowstone's and Grand Teton's gates open to snowmobiles ASAP rather than wait the requisite 30 days that normally must pass between acceptance of new rules (in this instance the newly approved winter-use plan for the parks) and their implementation.
Here's the solution the National Park Service turned to last year to open the parks on schedule:
This rule is effective on December 19, 2007. The National Park Service recognizes that new rules ordinarily go into effect thirty days after publication in the Federal Register. For this regulation, however, we have determined under 5 U.S.C. 553(d) and 318 DM 6.25 that this rule should be effective on December 19, 2007. This rule implements the winter use plans for the Parks and relieves the restrictions on the use of snowmobiles and snowcoaches that would exist in its absence. In addition, good cause exists for the effective date of December 19, 2007, for the following reasons:
(1) The NPS has in good faith since at least March 2006 publicly stated that the 2007-2008 winter season for the Parks would commence on December 19, 2007, and the public and businesses have made decisions based on the widespread public knowledge of this opening date.
(2) Since March 2006, the NPS has consistently and repeatedly stated that the 2007-2008 winter season would be a transition winter. As an action common to all alternatives in the Draft and Final EIS, the NPS stated the Parks would be open during the 2007-2008 winter season and operate under rules substantially the same as those that have been in effect last three winters under the temporary plan. Through this rule, the NPS intends to fulfill that commitment.
(3) Many persons planning to visit the Parks have already made travel plans in anticipation of the Parks being open for snowmobile and snowcoach use, such as reserving time off from work, booking airfares and hotel accommodations, making reservations for snowmobile or snowcoach tours, and the like. For example, in late August, Xanterra Parks and Resorts (which operates lodging and other services in Yellowstone) reported that 2007-2008 winter bookings were up 18% over last year. The Christmas-New Year period is the most heavily visited time of the 82-day winter season. If the Parks do not open as scheduled on December 19, it would create unnecessary hardship for visitors who have already planned trips, and would likely result in economic losses for some visitors if reservations had to be cancelled. Significant revenue loss for businesses in and around the Parks would also occur. Many businesses in the gateway communities surrounding the Parks, and the people who rely upon them for their livelihoods, are highly dependent upon the Parks being open for the entire duration of the 82-day season.
(4) Snowmobile and snowcoach operators have made business decisions and investments for the winter season premised on an opening date of December 19, 2007. Such actions include purchasing new snowmobiles and snowcoaches for their fleets, making offers of employment, preparing advertising and other materials, and purchasing snowmobile accessories such as suits, helmets, boots, mittens, etc. A delay in the effective date of this regulation would shorten an already brief winter season, thereby depriving these businesses and others that depend on the winter season (such as hotels, restaurants, service stations, and other hospitality-oriented businesses) of revenue that is important to their livelihoods. As recently as November 2, NPS met with snowcoach and snowmobile guides and outfitters to plan for the 2007-2008 winter season based on an opening date of December 19, 2007.
(5) There would be no benefit to the public in delaying the effective date of this rule, given that there has already been substantial notice of the opening date and that the Parks will be open under conditions substantially similar to those in effect for the past three years. The above-described harms to the public resulting from a procedural delay of this rule should therefore be avoided, and an effective date of December 19, 2007, is warranted.
Park officials were unavailable Friday evening to say whether they could resort to this same process for the coming winter. However, if it is an option they might have to come up with a winter-use plan more in keeping with Judge Sullivan's ruling.