National Park Service officials have finalized winter-use rules for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, and quickly drew condemnation for ignoring what's best for the parks' natural resources.
The rule published Tuesday allows for as many as 720 snowmobiles to skim through Yellowstone on a daily basis this winter, beginning on December 15 when the season officially gets under way. Whether that number will be reached on any given day is questionable, though, as snowmobile ridership has been down in recent years, with some blaming a requirement for a commercial guide to lead snowmobilers through Yellowstone for driving some riders away, while others believe the comfort of riding in a snowcoach is becoming more attractive for winter visitors.
At the same time, the 720-per-day limit flies in the face of research by Yellowstone's own scientists, who have recommended about half as many snowmobiles should be the upper limit if the park's wildlife and other natural resources are not to be adversely impacted.
Indeed, in mid-September a federal judge in Washington, D.C., tossed a winter-use plan that called for an upper limit of 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches per day because the Park Service couldn't justify that many snowmobiles. But in early November another federal judge, this one in Wyoming, ruled that while he couldn't overrule his cross-country colleague, he could direct the Park Service to revert to 2004 winter-use regulations if it couldn't come up with a new rule before the winter season began.
Although Park Service officials were closing in on such a rule, they aborted that process when the second ruling was issued, explaining that by doing so they would have more time to develop a more thorough, scientifically sound, and effective winter-use plan.
Which brings us to Tuesday's announced by the NPS and the reaction from the environmental and conservation organizations.
“The action taken by the Bush Administration today is squarely at odds with the stronger stewardship of Yellowstone that the National Park Service recommended just last month in order to begin ensuring that winter visitors can enjoy cleaner, healthier and more natural conditions," the groups said. "The administration has chosen to allow levels of air pollution, noise and harassment of wildlife which its own scientists and park managers have clearly stated are readily avoidable in our country’s first national park.
"It is disheartening, but hardly surprising at this point, to see this administration, in its final six weeks in office, blatantly contradicting the scientific findings and public comment that it came into office saying should be paramount in managing Yellowstone. We hope this will be the last time that politics trumps public will, scientific findings, and the law in providing winter enjoyment and protection of Yellowstone National Park.”
Here, courtesy of those groups, is a chronology of the most recent back-and-forth with the winter-use plan:
* On September 15, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the National Park Service’s winter-use plan authorizing up to 540 snowmobiles per day failed to protect Yellowstone National Park’s air quality, natural soundscapes and wildlife as required by law. The court ruled that the plan “clearly elevates use over conservation of park resources and values and fails to articulate why the Plan’s ‘major adverse impacts’ are ‘necessary and appropriate to fulfill the purposes of the park.’”
* On November 5, 2008, the National Park Service responded with a proposed plan to allow 318 snowmobiles per day as a temporary measure while the agency works to comply with the D.C. court’s order. Conservation groups expressed support for the plan as an interim measure.
* Today, the Bush Administration published a rule authorizing up to 720 snowmobiles per day, allowing even greater harm to Yellowstone’s air, quiet and wildlife than the plan invalidated by the D.C. court and permitting a level of snowmobile use that the National Park Service specifically rejected last month after concluding based on scientific studies that it would result in “major adverse impacts” to Yellowstone.
* The administration has asserted that the U.S. District Court in Wyoming required the National Park Service to reinstate the rule allowing 720 snowmobiles per day, but in actuality the Wyoming court left the National Park Service with discretion to promulgate a lawful rule protective of park resources.
* Four separate environmental studies by the National Park Service have determined that the most effective means of protecting Yellowstone’s air quality, quiet and wildlife – while also providing visitors motorized oversnow access to the park’s interior – combines expansion of snowcoach access with an end to park snowmobiling. The studies determined that allowing continued snowmobile use, even with additional restrictions, would result in significantly greater impacts to the park’s resources. The studies have cost taxpayers over $10 million.
* The National Park Service has analyzed well over half a million public comments in the course of the four studies, more than the agency has received on any issue since its establishment in 1916. Over 80 percent have favored expanding snowcoach access and ending park snowmobiling.