A federal judge in Wyoming who in the past has supported higher numbers of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park ruled Thursday that he could not overturn the National Park Service's decision to cap daily snowmobile numbers at 318 this coming winter.
In his brief ruling (attached below), U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer said that because the matter specifically before his court had been appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he had lost jurisdiction over it.
At issue was Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar's decision this past July to direct the Park Service to follow a course that would limit recreational snowmobile use in Yellowstone to 318 machines per day, along with 78 snowcoaches, for each of the next two winters while the Park Service crafts a viable winter-use plan for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Secretary Salazar's directive was the most recent that has ping-ponged the allowed number of snowmobiles in Yellowstone back and forth.
In November 2007, after the latest round of environmental studies, the Park Service had decided to allow up to 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches into the park on a daily basis. But the predicted legal challenges to that decision resulted in a federal judge -- U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who is based in Washington, D.C. -- to scold the agency for ignoring science and running from its conservation mission.
While Judge Sullivan tossed that winter-use plan, thus seemingly leading the Park Service back to the drawing board, Judge Brimmer trumped his Washington, D.C., colleague. While Judge Brimmer noted that 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 2008-2009 winter season began. That opened the door for the Park Service to halt work on the interim rule and turn back the hands of time to 2004, when as many as 720 snowmobiles were allowed into the park on a daily basis.
After Secretary Salazar's directive prevented the 2004 limits from being reinstated, Wyoming officials went back to Judge Brimmer with a request that he once again direct the Park Service to return to the 2004 temporary winter-use guidelines -- although they wanted to bump the daily number up to 740 snowmobiles -- until a final winter-use plan is adopted. On Thursday the judge said he had no authority to alter the snowmobile numbers, since his earlier ruling had been appealed by the National Parks Conservation Association to the 10th Circuit.
"The decision is procedural, but allows the National Park Service to move forward in providing winter access and enjoyment at Yellowstone that better protects park resources," said Patricia Dowd, NPCA's Yellowstone program manager. "It's a step in the right direction. NPCA welcomes the court's decision."