Jon Jarvis found himself navigating a tricky path Tuesday during his confirmation hearing as the next director of the National Park Service when questioned about recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park.
Mr. Jarvis, currently the Park Service's Pacific West regional director, drew some laughter when he remarked that he was surprised that the Interior Department would announce a reduction in daily snowmobile numbers in the park the week before his confirmation hearing. But once the laughs died down, he tried his best to avoid a direct answer when U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, pressed him on whether he supported snowmobiling in the park.
"My impression of the current situation is that we have made significant improvements in the quality of the experience. The snow machine industry has responded I think very effectively with machines that are much quieter and are much cleaner," said the nominee. "I believe that the guiding operations have significantly reduced, if not eliminated, the effects on wildlife, and I believe that the public's experience both in the snowcoaches and on the snow machines is at a very.
"... But as I mentioned, we have a volatile situation, particularly between the two dueling courts, that results in an unsure future, and I think that's something that you certainly have my commitment to work with you, and other members that are very, very concerned about this, to find a solution that provides great experiences in winter access to Yellowstone."
The senator from Wyoming, obviously unsatisfied with Mr. Jarvis's answer, pushed on.
"The New York Times had an editorial last week that said there shouldn't be any winter access by snow machines in Yellowstone Park, period," said the Republican. "You support snowmobile access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, is that what I hear you say?"
"At this point I cannot commit one way or another," responded Mr. Jarvis, who seemed to avoid direct eye contact with Sen. Barrasso. "I don't know the details of this, but I do commit to winter use and winter access, and a sustainable decision, one that can provide continuity and planning for the gateway communities and for the park itself."
"Planning," replied the senator. "If you say there's no snowmobiles, that's an absolute answer, but that's not one that anybody in Wyoming is looking for. So, you said you were committed to winter access. I want to know that you're committed to winter access for snow machines in Yellowstone National Park."
Refusing to be forced into a corner, Mr. Jarvis answered that it would be inappropriate at this point for him to give a definitive answer.
"We have litigation in this case, two dueling courts, we have to do an interim rule, hopefully we can kick in immediately to do the environmental impact statement for the final rule, which will analyze, with the best available science, the working group that is out there, all of the stakeholders, on a range of alternatives," he said. "But at this point it would be incorrect for me to make a commitment to one or the other. We have to go through the process. I think that's the key."
But Sen. Barrasso was equally adamant to get a firm position from Mr. Jarvis, and pointed to a statement the Park Service made last fall -- under the Bush administration -- about the strides snowmobile technology has made in recent years in terms of air and noise pollution.
"Well, on November 17 of this past year, the National Park Service released a statement about winter use in Yellowstone. And this is the quote: 'Monitoring data from the past four winters shows excellent air quality, few wildlife disturbances and reduced sound impacts,' the things that you just mentioned," he said. "All were at fully acceptable levels. Air quality, wildlife, sound. All at fully acceptable levels, and below the levels recorded at the historic, unregulated use in the parks, which show that the limited use of guided, as you said, and Best Available Technology snowmobiles has worked. So the science appears to support current management of snowmobiles in the park. Do you agree with that National Park Service statement of November 17?"
"Absolutely," answered Mr. Jarvis. "I think all of those indicators, all of these programs that we've implemented as a system, as you mentioned, have significantly improved, not only the quality of the environment in this case, but also the public experience. What we're trying to reach now is something that is sustainable into the future. Applying all of those standards."
What the senator didn't broach, though, was the state of Wyoming's recent move back to federal court to try to increase daily snowmobile limits in Yellowstone above the current administration's preference. While Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has set daily limits of 318 for snowmobiles and 78 for snowcoaches during the next two winters while the Park Service once again works on a winter-use plan, Wyoming officials last week indicated that they want the snowmobile limit set at 740 machines. That number runs counter to what Yellowstone's scientists, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have said would be reasonable numbers in terms of wildlife disturbances and pollution.
From the winter of 2003-2004 through that of 2006-2007, 250-300 snowmobiles entered the park per day on average, according to park statistics. During that span of time scientific research conducted in the park documented in detail that increasing the number of snowmobiles above 250 per day would add significantly to noise and air pollution problems that already exceed park thresholds and would carry addition impacts on the park's wildlife. Plus, according to an EPA analysis of the research, allowing more than 250 snowmobiles per day into Yellowstone could compromise human health. Here's what the EPA told Yellowstone planners in June 2007: "Today, vehicle numbers are reduced by two-thirds compared to historic use, resulting in improved air quality and soundscapes as well as reduced wildlife disturbance."
Recognizing, perhaps, that he wasn't going to get the answer he desired, Sen. Barrasso changed tacks a bit and inquired about the Obama administration's position on automobile access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks.
"When we visited (prior to the hearing) we talked about the impact of snowmachines in the park in the winter versus the impact of automobiles in the summer. Do you know if the administration has any intention to cut visitation numbers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton park year-round in terms of automobile access, vehicles in the summer?" Sen. Barrasso asked.
"I have heard no indication of that for those two parks at all," replied the nominee.
"Is that anything that would be on your agenda?," wondered the senator in his parting shot.
"Certainly not," answered Mr. Jarvis.