Updated: Groups Claim Yellowstone National Park Officials Abdicating Responsibility Over Snowmobile Access Issue

Conservation groups say Yellowstone officials have several regulatory tools they can use to allow over-snow recreational traffic, such as this snowcoach, in the park this coming winter.

Officials for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks announced Wednesday that they would prepare yet another environmental study to clear the way for recreational snowmobiling and snowcoach traffic in the parks this winter.

The announcement came shortly after a coalition of groups released a letter sent to National Park Service Director Mary Bomar and Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis that suggested steps the agency could take to allow over-snow traffic in the parks this winter.

Whether over-snow traffic would be allowed in the two parks had been thrown into question on September 15 when a federal judge in Washington, D.C., threw out the parks' winter-use management plan.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton officials have publicly been wringing their hands over how to respond to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan's ruling, in which he pointed out 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."

On September 19, four days after the judge ruled, the parks issued a joint press release in which they cast into question whether there would be over-snow traffic this winter, saying that, "(U)nless some change occurs, neither snowmobiles nor snowcoaches will be allowed in Yellowstone or Grand Teton this winter."

In the ensuing weeks the agency explored various options, including the use of a congressional rider that would dictate snowmobiling in the two parks. While the rider effort failed, officials finally concluded that they have enough time to propose a new rule for snowmobile and snowcoach use in the park, have the public review it, and institute it before the winter season begins in mid-December.

"We looked at our legal options and determined that we need to begin work on a new Environmental Assessment to support a proposed rule," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said late Wednesday afternoon. "Go through public comment, analyze those comments, and then that would support whatever decision we may end up making."

The proposed rule, he said, should be announced in November.

Such a scenario was raised last week when groups ranging from The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club, Winter Wildlands Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council wrote NPS Director Mary Bomar and Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis with several possible solutions.

In their letter the groups said they believe the Park Service already "has the necessary authority to take steps immediately to provide certainty to the American people concerning their opportunity to access and enjoy Yellowstone National Park in the coming 2008-2009 winter season."

Specifically, the agency could promulgate a new, interim regulation to govern over-the-snow traffic for the coming winter, they said.

"Our organizations are not opposed to some transitional level of snowmobile use in Yellowstone this winter. We suggest that NPS use one of several legal options to promulgate a new, interim regulation before the beginning of the winter season that permits as many as 260 snowmobiles per day—the average use during the last five seasons," they said in a letter sent September 23. "Such a transitional measure would temporarily preserve the daily average for the past 5 years and allow the Park Service the time to act on a long-term approach."

Additionally, the groups believe the Park Service could result to the "'good cause' authority under 5 U.S.C. 553."

"While you should adopt a regulation as soon as possible, this authority was exercised last year to adopt the 2007 Winter Use Plan," they point out in their letter. "That rule was published in the Federal Register on December 13, 2007, and made effective on December 19, 2007."

A third option possibly open to the Park Service is to simply allow snowcoach traffic in the park as usual. Destry Jarvis, a long-time National Park Service official who spent 36 years working on policy matters, says snowcoach traffic in the parks could continue unaffected by Judge Sullivan's ruling under the Concessions Management Act of 1998.

“Whether there was a winter-use plan or not, the Park Service has the authority to allow snowcoaches," said Mr. Jarvis, who today operates a consulting business involved with outdoor recreation and park issues.

“I would also say there’s a strong argument that can be made that (Judge) Sullivan’s order essentially reverts the park back to the prior levels of snowmobile use," he added. "I think for their purposes, there’s no reason they can’t go back to the prior level, which was 260-something per day that has been the average of the past five years’ actual use."

The ongoing debate over recreational snowmobile use in Yellowstone has run the length of the Bush administration, arising shortly after it took office in 2000 when the president stayed plans to phase snowmobiles out of the park. Over the ensuing 7+ years there have been a variety of environmental studies, at a cost of more than $10 million, and all have pointed out that the environmentally preferred alternative would be to phase out snowmobiles while relying on snowcoaches to handle visitors.

When Yellowstone officials announced their most recent winter-use plan, which allows for up to 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches to skim daily through Yellowstone beginning this coming winter, they were quickly taken to court by groups who argued the plan ignores science and would impair the park's resources.

That lawsuit led to Judge Sullivan's latest ruling and the uncertainty by park officials over how they can permit over-snow traffic this winter.

At The Wilderness Society, officials on Wednesday lamented that officials at Yellowstone and within the National Park Service seemed to be abdicating their responsibility as managers in hopes a political solution would ride to their rescue.

"The Park Service is asking Congress to manage the park and publicly telling they public they are going to shut down the park," says Kristen Brengel, who long has monitored the snowmobile issue for The Wilderness Society. "Basically they are saying they can’t do their jobs. They can’t manage and they can’t figure out how to allow the public in through their own authority.

"...“This is purely political. They continue to debate what’s in Judge Sullivan’s ruling” rather than developing a plan that lives up to that ruling, she added.

"They’ve got plenty of alternatives to move forward on a rule, or allow snowcoaches by another means. Clearly, by going to Congress they’re just being political and they’re hedging at this point. They have to get serious about taking care of the problem they created on their own,” said Ms. Brengel.

Mr. Jarvis, who counts The Wilderness Society and NPCA among his clients, doesn't blame Yellowstone or Grand Teton officials for the problem, but rather political appointees in Washington who are tying Park Service hands on the matter.

“I don’t think anyone wants the park completely shut down in the winter," he said. "If you make the threat of a dire economic situation, on top of the country’s other dire economic situations, by trumping up a situation that has no truly legal basis, that’s all their doing. It’s a scare tactic to try and force other actions.”

Comments

"The Park Service is asking Congress to manage the park and publicly telling they public they are going to shut down the park," says Kristen Brengel, who long has monitored the snowmobile issue for The Wilderness Society. "Basically they are saying they can’t do their jobs. They can’t manage and they can’t figure out how to allow the public in through their own authority.

"...“This is purely political. They continue to debate what’s in Judge Sullivan’s ruling” rather than developing a plan that lives up to that ruling, she added.

From what I've seen in the CHNSRA this summer, this seems to be the case throughout much of the NPS. This situation is strikingly similar to the ORV access issue in Cape Hatteras in many aspects. I applaud all sides for the revisiting of this issue. I only wish more open minds existed in the case of ORV access in the CHNSRA.

With the snowcoaches and snowmobiles riding on the same roadbeds that millions of vehicles traverse during the non-snow covered months, how much impact can a few hundred of each of these types of vehicles truly have, especially when guided by the NPS Rangers? What are the daily numbers of autos allowed in, in comparison?

It would seem that a balance could easily be reached through negotiations and further study. Not through lawsuits and congressional meddling.