Yellowstone National Park officials, having had their initially preferred winter-use plan shot down by a federal judge, are back with another proposal. This one would allow up to 318 commercially guided snowmobiles, and up to 78 commercially guided snowcoaches, into the park each day. All machines would have to be so-called Best Available Technology.
In neighboring Grand Teton National Park, the proposal calls for grooming and motorized oversnow travel on the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail between Moran Junction and Flagg Ranch to be discontinued. However, those interested in through-travel on the CDST could transport their snowmobiles on trailers between these locations.
Additionally, the proposal would allow 25 snowmobiles a day to travel on the Grassy Lake Road, with no Best Available Technology or guiding requirement. Twenty-five unguided, BAT snowmobiles a day would also be allowed on Jackson Lake to facilitate ice fishing by those possessing appropriate fishing gear and a valid State of Wyoming fishing license.
The parks' quickly prepared (what normally takes months was accomplished in just six weeks) environmental assessment offers just two options: the above-cited one, and a "no action" alternative, which would ban recreational snowmobile and snowcoach access in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
If you recall, back in September U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan tossed out the parks' previous winter-use plan, saying that the preferred approach to continuing recreational snowmobile use in the parks runs counter to science and the National Park Service's conservation mission.
"According to NPS's own data," wrote the judge, "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, that plan called for as many as 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches to tour Yellowstone each day in winter. The latest proposal, which is up for public review through November 17, lowers those numbers, albeit not as low as park researchers have recommended. Additionally, the ceiling of 318 snowmobiles a day still is higher than last winter's average of 294.
In their report, "Behavioral Responses of Wildlife to Snowmobiles and Coaches in Yellowstone," Yellowstone's wildlife biologists came to the conclusion, after monitoring winter conditions in Yellowstone from the winter of 2002-03 through the winter of 2005-06, that wildlife would best be served by over-snow traffic with 250 or fewer snowmobiles per day.
In a joint response to the parks' proposal, The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association expressed hopes that the parks could do a better job of protecting their resources in a long-term winter-use plan.
"As a temporary plan for the coming winter season, this steps in a better direction than the Bush Administration's previous plan. Everyone wants Yellowstone to open on time," the groups said. "It's encouraging to see the National Park Service working to make this happen and to see Yellowstone acknowledging that its prior plan did not provide adequate protection of the park's air quality, quiet and wildlife.
"For the longer term, it’s important to understand that the number of snowmobiles now being proposed still exceeds the daily average of the past five winters and will still damage Yellowstone’s resources. Every scientific study has demonstrated that the Park Service can do a better job protecting Yellowstone’s resources by increasing public access to the Park on snowcoaches."
The current proposal calls for these limits to remain in force for three years. And it would allow motorized oversnow travel over Sylvan Pass and Yellowstone’s East Entrance road as agreed to by the Sylvan Pass Study Group this past summer.
"Park managers believe an approach including both snowmobile and snowcoach access reduces impacts of both to acceptable levels," park officials said in a release. "This environmental assessment addresses the impact concerns raised by the recent ruling of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia."
A proposed rule to implement the preferred alternative contained in the new plan will be published in a few days in the Federal Register, and will also be open for a 15-day public review and comment period. The rule-making process supports, but is separate from, the public review and comment period on the EA.
Once comments are analyzed, the National Park Service will make a decision on the proposed plan. If the preferred alternative is selected, the Regional Director of the Intermountain Region of the National Park Service would sign a Finding Of No Significant Action (FONSI) containing details of his decision.