Snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Environmental Extremists in the Obama Administration
What are we to think when a U.S. senator brands Jon Jarvis, a highly respected regional director of the National Park Service, as representing "the extreme policies of the Obama administration"?
The answer, of course, is that the political pendulum has swung, and those who enjoyed the Bush years are already lamenting the Obama years.
The policies that Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, was referring to center on snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park and the senator's comment, made last week in the wake of Mr. Jarvis' confirmation hearing as National Park Service director, were aimed not so much at Mr. Jarvis personally but more likely at Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who last week lowered the bar somewhat on recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone. Where the Bush administration, aided by a federal judge in Wyoming, had OKed upwards of 720 snowmobiles per day in the park, Secretary Salazar cut that down to 318, along with 78 snowcoaches, for the next two winters while park officials once again try to serve their newest political masters in drawing up yet another winter-use plan for Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park.
Understandably, Sen. Barrasso and the rest of the Wyoming congressional delegation wouldn't mind an unlimited number of snowmobiles in the park on any given winter day, though they're willing to settle for 740 a day. To them snowmobilers mean money spent in Wyoming business (although, far and away the bulk of park snowmobilers enter from West Yellowstone, Montana, not via the entrances outside Cody or Jackson in Wyoming).
That's fair and well, for Washington pols live to serve their home states, despite the "U.S." that precedes their titles. What's unfortunate, though, is the tone in which Sen. Barrasso drove his point home. Here's a release his office issued after Mr. Jarvis's confirmation hearing:
U.S. Senator John Barrasso slammed the Obama administration’s threat to limit snow machine access to Yellowstone National Park at a Senate Energy Committee Hearing today. Senator Barrasso grilled Jon Jarvis, the nominee for director of the National Park Service.
The nominee’s responses to Barrasso’s questions were not reassuring. Barrasso believes Jarvis represents the extreme policies of the Obama administration. An administration that will put environmental ideology before the public interest.
Barrasso believes the philosophy of shutting the public out of our parks is deplorable and will be harmful to Wyoming and to parks nationwide. National Park Service wants to limit snowmobile and snow coach access into Yellowstone National Park.
The Obama Administration’s plan will roll back years of public input and court rulings. Visitors to Yellowstone will be robbed of reasonable and responsible access to the park. The Administration plan will halve the number of visitors to Yellowstone. It will have a significant impact on Wyoming’s gateway communities. The National Park Service move will leave small recreational businesses around Yellowstone in limbo. The proposed limits are below what was recommended by the Park Service less than two years ago.
But then, perhaps the senator intended to come across just that harshly. His highly partisan tone in general hasn't gone unnoticed in his home state of Wyoming, where one newspaper columnist noted that "Sen. Barrasso has become one of the most partisan people in the Senate. It seems he rarely works with folks across the aisle and seems to not care about working in Democrats at all. He has absorbed in full the total religion of the conservative side of the national Republican Party and there is little doubt where he will vote when it comes to partisan issues."
While the columnist when on to approve of the senator's style, details shouldn't be overlooked. While the senator is correct that there have been "years of public input and court rulings," his interpretation seems selective. For instance:
* Those who favor fewer snowmobiles in Yellowstone say public comment taken on the question of recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone -- the most commented upon issue in the entire history of the National Park Service -- has overwhelmingly favored a phase-out of snowmobiles in favor of snow coaches. More interesting than that general statement is a 2006 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the Bloomberg news service. It showed that while the Bush administration long advocated increased access for snowmobiles and other forms of motorized recreation in national parks such as Yellowstone, a substantial majority of the public opposed such measures. In the West, home to many of the nation's most popular parks, 80 percent called for limiting access to snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to protect natural habitat and wildlife. Nationally, the figure was 77 percent, according to the survey.
* A federal judge (granted, one in Washington, D.C., who seems to lean to the left when it comes to environmental issues), threw the National Park Service's most recent winter-use plan for the two parks out the window, saying it not only circumvented the National Park Service Organic Act but also pointed out that, "According to NPS's own data 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."
* The ruling Sen. Barrasso most likely was referencing came from U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, a Wyoming-based jurist who snowmobile proponents usually look to to support their cause. In his ruling last November, the one that gave the Bush administration the opening it needed to direct the Park Service to boost to 720 the number of snowmobiles that could enter Yellowstone daily, Judge Brimmer held that, "the Court believes that the NPS thoroughly reviewed and investigated the effects of the final rule on the environment of the parks. The final rule promulgated by the NPS reflects this thorough review and investigation. Furthermore, the NPS has been designated an expert in this area, and should be given wide discretion when discharging its duties."
What both Judge Brimmer, and now Sen. Barrasso, seemed to overlook is that Yellowstone's own experts, the scientists who studied the park's air, water, land, and wildlife resources and the impacts snowmobiles had on them, recommended that no more than 250 snowmobiles per day be allowed into the park. Additionally, they seemingly turn a blind eye to the strings being pulled by the Interior Department and then-Vice President Cheney's office on snowmobiling in Yellowstone.
* Despite Sen. Barrasso's contention, reducing snowmobile numbers in Yellowstone is not "robbing" visitors of access to the park, and the new limits are unlikely to "halve the number of visitors to Yellowstone." Since the winter of 2003-04, when a firm cap of 720 snowmobiles per day was implemented, through the winter of 2007-2008 winter visitation has ebbed and flowed, ranging from a low of 252,508 during the winter of 2003-04 to a high of 297,357 the winter of 2007-2008. Last winter, when the judicial exchanges left things somewhat up in the air (the park had proposed a limit of 540 snowmobiles before it was bumped back up to 720), winter visitation dipped to 245,269.
According to Yellowstone's research, snowmobile usage seemed to begin sliding with the winter of 2002-2003, "prior to any change in winter access." For the last four winters (2003-2004 through 2006-2007), snowmobile numbers have averaged between 250 and 300 a day (a 72 percent decline between 2001-2002 and 2004-2005), the park's most recent environmental impact statement on winter use notes. Of course, possible factors influencing the decline range from uncertainty, given the ever-present litigation, over snowmobile limits, to poor snow years and even to decisions by snowmobile outfitters not to invest in "best available technology" machines and so forfeit trips into Yellowstone. Snowcoach use, however, has moved almost exactly in the opposite direction; between 2001-2002 and 2005-2006, snowcoach traffic has jumped 72 percent, with 34 coaches bringing 272 visitors into the park each winter day, on average, according to the park's statistics.
The change in visitors' preference for how they visit Yellowstone in winter is more evident when you look more closely at how visitors enter the park. During the winter of 2002-2003, 60,406 visitors came via snowmobile, while 12,154 traveled by snowcoach. This past winter saw 23,417 visitors arrive atop a snowmobile and 18,972 come inside a snowcoach, according to park statistics, which you can find at this site.
Sen. Barrasso was not available to discuss these trends. Being one of a handful of doctors in the Senate, most of his time these days is understandably spent on health-care reform. However, his press secretary, Greg Keeley, took a few moments to elaborate on the senator's position.
“If, as the administration wants to do, halve, or even more, put more restrictions on the operators, that’s going to have an enormously negative effect on operators in the gateway communities in Cody," said Mr. Keeley. “If there restrictions go ahead that they’re proposing at the moment, it will just be awful for the guys who are trying to run seasonal businesses.”
For Sen. Barrasso, the snowmobile issue is not "small potatoes," the spokesman said. "This is a very big deal for him. He’s fought every time we have an agreement with the environmentalists -- if you want to call them that -- put it back in court. And it’s just getting to the point ... it’s just going to get very difficult for the guys that are, 1) trying to see the park, and 2), folks that are trying to make a living taking folks through the park. They (the Obama administration) have no idea of the ramifications of all this stuff.”
Of course, if recent history has taught us anything, issues such as snowmobiles in Yellowstone will be constantly ping-ponged back and forth between Democrats and Republicans until reason comes to rule the day. Hasn't the time come that science truly is allowed to guide management decisions, and that all stakeholders agree to accept it?
Will it be the end of the world if snowcoaches are the only way to ride into Yellowstone in the winter? The gateway communities will evolve to meet that need, as some outfitters already have. What will fall by the wayside, and no doubt with much relief, will be the seasonal histrionics that arise over winter-use in the parks and the millions of dollars being wasted on studies and lawyers, millions that could be much better spent on other more pressing national park issues.