In one of the most bizarre public lands dramas in recent history, Yellowstone National Park officials Monday afternoon said they would allow up to 720 snowmobiles into the park every day this winter.
That decision came as park officials, who earlier this fall had their preferred winter-use plan tossed out the window by a federal judge in Washington, D.C., viewed a ruling on another snowmobile lawsuit filed in Wyoming as providing them another window to revert to their 2004 winter rules.
Groups that have fought to see recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone phased out in favor of more environmentally friendly snow coaches immediately criticized the park's decision, saying Superintendent Suzanne Lewis had misinterpreted U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer's ruling and was failing to protect Yellowstone's resources as best she could.
"We thought we had seen the limit of unprincipled leadership regarding decisions related to winter use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but obviously we hadn't," reacted Bill Wade, who chairs the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees when he learned of the park's decision.
"NPS leaders had every opportunity to do what is 'right' for the resources and uphold the preferences of the American public as a result of the D.C. Court decision. Instead, they've chosen to cherry-pick some language in the Wyoming Court's decision that they've decided allows them to do exactly the contrary," added Mr. Wade. "We hope the incoming leaders of the Department of the Interior and the NPS see all this for what it is and turn this train-wreck around. The world's first national park deserves better."
At The Wilderness Society, which long has lobbied for cleaner snow coaches in the park, Kristen Brengel had two words of comment: "Pure politics."
Yellowstone officials, however, countered that they were, in effect, following the wishes of both judges as well as providing the snowmobiling public with certainty that Yellowstone would indeed be open for them beginning on December 15, the planned start of the winter season, snow-cover allowing.
Judge Brimmer's decision "provides for access for this winter that can be planned on, and that provides that information 20-some days in advance of the planned start of the winter season, as opposed to our process, which had the potential to come up with a decision perhaps the day of the planned start of the winter season," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said Monday evening.
"Both judges have told us to look forward and we’re now trying, we’re beginning the process to see how we can move forward and come up with a sustainable, long-term plan for winter use management of the parks,” he added.
It was back in mid-September when U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected the park's winter-use plan, saying it flew in the face of logic, the environment, and the National Park Service's own Organic Act.
"According to NPS's own data," wrote Judge 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."
Now, Judge Sullivan often is the environment-friendly judge that environmentally inclined groups seek out. His counterpart in Wyoming, Judge Brimmer, is the one pro-industry groups seek out. And while Judge Sullivan was ruling on challenges to the park's winter-use plan, challenges that said the park should follow the science and phase-out recreational snowmobiling, Judge Brimmer was faced with a lawsuit filed by the state of Wyoming and Park County, Wyoming, that questioned Yellowstone's ability not only to reduce the daily number of snowmobiles in the park but also a requirement that snowmobilers be led by commercial guides.
Now, what's particularly interesting about this judicial Ping-Pong is that Yellowstone officials seemingly are being particularly selective in which decision to follow.
Here's the conclusion of Judge Brimmer's ruling, which is attached below:
Based upon the foregoing, and for reasons previously stated therein, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the D.C. District Court's invalidation of the final rule shall remain undisturbed by this Court.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the NPS shall reinstate the 2004 temporary rule until such time as it can promulgate an acceptable rule to take its place.
In other words, Judge Brimmer acknowledges that he can't overturn Judge Sullivan's ruling regarding Yellowstone's winter-use plan. At the same time, he directs the park to follow the 2004 regulations "until such time as (Yellowstone) can promulgate an acceptable rule to take its place."
Now, Yellowstone officials have had the wheels in motion to do just that. Indeed, earlier this month the park released a winter-use plan that would allow up to 318 snowmobiles and as many as 78 snow coaches per day into Yellowstone for each of the next three winters.
This is what park officials said when they released that proposal: "Park managers believe an approach including both snowmobile and snowcoach access reduces impacts of both to acceptable levels. This environmental assessment addresses the impact concerns raised by the recent ruling of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia."
In Monday's release, however, Yellowstone officials took another tack, saying they were putting off implementation of their latest rule-making effort so they could better review public comment.
Ranger Nash said that while Yellowstone and Grand Teton officials were putting their EA process on the back burner, they planned to use comments from that process to help formulate a long-term winter-use plan. Whether such a plan will be in place before the winter of 2009-10 he could not say.
"Our planning goal has been to provide something that people can count on," said the park spokesman. "It's been an elusive goal in light of the continued legal challenges over the years."
As for the coming winter season, Ranger Nash added that Yellowstone officials really don't expect to see snowmobile traffic levels much beyond what they've seen the last two years, when daily averages were just under 300 snowmobiles.
When asked whether the snowmobile issue has become more rooted in politics than what's best for park resources, he offered this:
“That’s hard for me to determine. What I am confident saying is that the debate that surrounds winter-use in Yellowstone certainly seems to be focused on values, and not as often on the objective signs. And values discussions carry a great deal of investment and emotion. And we certainly see that reflected in every debate that involves this issue and these parks.
"Certainly, people’s political interests and leanings are part of their values. It’s hard to separate those for some people. And we’re caught up in that ‘value’ discussion. But we don’t operate in a vacuum. And we don’t pretend that we operate in a vacuum.”
Here's Monday's release from Yellowstone and Grand Teton:
A recent court order removes uncertainty about snowmobile and snowcoach access in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks this winter.
Back in September, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., rejected the park’s latest winter use plan, thereby prohibiting snowmobile and snowcoach access without a new regulation. In response, the National Park Service (NPS) began work on a new temporary plan to guide winter use management in the parks, in an effort to get the parks open on time this winter on December 15, 2008. The preferred alternative in the temporary plan calls for limited, managed snowmobile and snowcoach access in the parks.
A related challenge to winter use management in the parks has been before the U.S. District Court in Wyoming. On November 7, 2008, that court ordered the National Park Service to reinstate a 2004 rule, which will allow snowmobile and snowcoach access in Yellowstone and Grand Teton this winter.
The NPS will publish a rule in the Federal Register to reinstate the 2004 rule in accordance with the Wyoming court’s order. The parks will operate under this reinstated rule for this winter season, providing visitors, area businesses, and park employees with a plan they can count on for this year.
The reinstated 2004 rule will also allow the NPS time to analyze public comment received on the temporary plan and its supporting proposed rule, in order to guide a long-term planning process for winter use in the parks as directed in the orders issued by both federal courts. Public comment on the temporary plan ends at midnight tonight, and at midnight November 20, on the supporting proposed rule.
Under the reinstated 2004 rule, motorized over-snow access will be allowed this winter as it has for the past four winters. Up to 720 commercially guided, Best Available Technology (BAT) snowmobiles and up to 78 snowcoaches will be allowed per day in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone’s East Entrance and Sylvan Pass will be open for motorized and non-motorized over-snow travel, subject to weather and safety constraints. Trail and off-road use of snowmobiles and snowcoaches has always been, and will continue to be prohibited.
The 2004 rule also addresses snowmobile access in Grand Teton and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, including access along Grassy Lake Road, and on Jackson Lake for licensed anglers.
During the last two winters, an average of about 296 snowmobiles a day entered Yellowstone. The park’s peak day was during last December, when 557 snowmobiles entered the park. Given the uncertainty caused by lawsuits on winter use, park managers forecast use levels for this winter to remain near these levels.