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Updated: Dueling Judges Push Yellowstone National Park Snowmobile Limit Back to 720 Per Day


Yellowstone National Park officials seemingly got creative in deciding which judge's snowmobile ruling to follow for the coming winter. NPS photo.

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.

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.


Mountain bikes aren't allowed on the vast majority of NPS unpaved trails. The only ones I know of that do allow mountain bikes are essentially unpaved roads wide enough for motor vehicles.

I would note that backcountry users (i.e. backpackers) also pay special fees in many national parks, including use and reservation fees. Yosemite actually doesn't charge for backcountry permits if they're not reserved. At the very least, backpackers face quotas in some of the more heavily used backcountry areas.

In addition, campers are effectively limited by the number of available campsites.

It's not as if there aren't any precedents for special use (backpacking, camping, snowmobile) limits.

I think the reality is that the American public, through taxes, pays for the bulk of the park and those salaries. Snowmobile permits are a small, small pool of revenue in the overall picture, particularly when you factor in how much summer entrance fees generate for the park vs. winter entrance fees. Hikers and mountain bikers do pay entrance fees, too, when they come into Yellowstone.

The reality is that permits for snowmobiles pay for the park and those who maintain the parks salaries. Are the mountain bikers paying anything for stickers? Hikers paying for stickers for their hiking boots...?
I don't think so.
Snowmobiles should be allowed on public land. We as outdoor enthusiasts deserve to use the park in the winter just as we are allowed to drive into the park in the summer!
Do they limit campers or cars in the summer?

The economic crisis is taking a toll on recreational travel. Over the past couple of decades most people lived it up, including purchasing and using mechanical outdoors toys (snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, jet skis, 4-wheel drive monster trucks, etc.). The crash of the economy is reverberating throughout our country, including the recreational industry. Perhaps people will rediscover their legs and the soul cleansing value of silence. All indications are that this is going to be a long haul before the economy bottoms out and begins to recover. Even then we may never regain the extreme heights of consumerism that characterized the past several years. And that just may not be such a bad thing.

At least this year, all of this arguing about limits has turned out to be irrelevant. Snowmobile traffic is significantly down this year (to date); visitation overall is lower, but a lot of the shortfall has been made up for by vehicular traffic in the North Entrance. See .

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

Have to agee with the last Anon poster. iI see nothing wrong with allowing recreational use of the park by snow mobilers. It seems the enviros want the parks to be not used by humans. That is not the purpose of the parks. They are to be enjoyed by Americans and Americans have different ways they like to enjoy the parks. I have never snowmobiled but I think it would be fun and a great way to see the park in the winter.

That judge in DC should be the one to decide, in the interest of all the people hence the word National Park; not the locals with their own agenda!!!!

I am a frequent visitor to Yellowstone and would endorse nothing that truly threatened that ecosystem. However, this NON issue displays how far the fanatical left will go to pursue agendas that have no basis in scientific fact and challenge the outer limits of common sense. Yellowstone is 3500 square miles, roughly seven times the land area of the City of Los Angeles, California (470 square miles). The area of Yellowstone is almost exactly the same as the area of our two smallest states (Rhode Island and Delaware) combined. It is over 50 times the size of Washington, D.C. from where the learned Judge Sullivan issues his legal rulings.

Can you imagine what would happen if someone would propose a federal regulation that limited the number of motor vehicles in any of those places to 500 per day? Can you imagine the public reaction to a judge who ruled that limiting the number of motor vehicles to 500 in any of those places still created an unacceptable risk to the environment? I would suggest that if such a ruling were forthcoming, its author would be declared insane and measures commensurate with that declaration would be forthcoming.

Allowing 5,000 snowmobiles a day is not going to harm one pine needle on one tree. No animal going to be more endangered by a snow mobile that they are in the summer months when 90-year-old men drive 80 foot motorhomes around corners on Dunraven Road. (For those left-wingers without a sense of humor, this is what is known as sarcasm).

If these groups backing these insane regulations are truly environmentalists, why don't they really do something about it and figure out how to eradicate the blister rust and European beetles that are devastating the whitebark pine in the Park and surrounding areas? The answer is fairly obvious: It's a lot easier to hold up a protest sign, smoke a lot of dope, file frivilous lawsuits and get well-intentioned but blissfully ignorant people to donate unconscionable amounts to ridiculous causes so that those who are incapable of holding down real jobs can continue to live off the good intentions of the terminally ignorant rather than to solve complicated real problems in the real world. (How's that for a run-on sentence).

P.S. I have never ridden a snow mobile in my life but I can also see through these transparent tactics. These people do not understand the difference between National Parks, which were designed so that humans (even those not from the "enlightened" left) can enjoy and interact with nature and Wilderness areas (where human impact is designed to be next to zero). Their "agenda" is to first eliminate snowmobiles, then eliminate motor homes, then eliminate personal auto travel so that if we want to see Yellowstone we have to ride tour buses filled with AARP members while listening to the propaganda of the tour bus driver who was indoctrinated by the same people who endorse lawsuits of this nature.

Should that day ever come, I intend to organize the "Million Motor Home March". We'll surround Washington D.C., start up make-shift buffets (where we all can eat) and play our Lawrence Welk records over loud speakers (a certifiable form of torture) until they come to their senses and repent.

Seriously, folks, let's keep the snow-mobilers on the plowed roads. Employ enough law enforcement to keep the rednecks from harassing the bison (both mentally challenged creations of the Almighty, no doubt) and devote those millions in all of the 501(c)(3) corps to causes which really will protect and preserve the beauty and unique qualities of Yellowstone for generations to come.

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