The pledge by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar to let science prevail in national park management decisions is nearing its defining test. If science is not supported in Yellowstone, where else in the park system will it have the final say?
In his cover letter to President Bush on the Centennial Initiative, Mr. Kempthorne promised that stewardship and science will guide decisions. Director Bomar reiterated that point to me last week in Texas, where she appeared at the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy.
"When I came into the National Park Service, I didn't realize the in-depth that the good stewards in the national parks went to. Often, we'd be accused of studying things to death. If you didn't like the answer we'll do another study," she said. "But I will say over time that I've come to really appreciate that, that we make good decisions based on good information."
Perhaps tellingly in relation to the decision-making ongoing in the Yellowstone snowmobile issue, the director went on to say that throughout her Park Service career she has "worked with archaeologists, historians, biologists ... and often we don't sit down and listen to their information that they've gathered."
In the case of Yellowstone and snowmobiles, the science has time and again illustrated that the park's resources would be stewarded better by phasing recreational snowmobiles out of Yellowstone and relying on snow coaches to move visitors about the park. Unfortunately, as the scientists themselves pointed out on page 20 of their report on how snowmobiles affect Yellowstone's wildlife, politics can at times trump science.
What's so striking in the Yellowstone matter is how strongly worded the science is in terms of what's best for the park's resources, its visitors, and its employees. Even after park officials retreated a bit from their initial preferred alternative, which would have allowed for up to 720 snowmobiles per in in the park, down to 540 a day, impacts stand to be felt across Yellowstone.
In their report, "Behavioral Responses of Wildlife to Snowmobiles and Coaches in Yellowstone," the 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.
“…we suggest regulations restricting levels and travel routes of OSVs [over-snow vehicles] were effective at reducing disturbances to these wildlife species below a level that would cause measurable fitness effects. We recommend park managers consider maintaining OSV traffic levels at or below those observed during our study.”
However, the latest preferred alternative supported by Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis more than doubles the allowable traffic levels from where they've been when those studies were conducted. In a letter sent this past week to Director Bomar, the presidents and executive directors of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and the Winter Wildlands Alliance urged the director to reject Superintendent Lewis's course of action.
The choice made in the new 'Preferred Alternative' is thus to exceed—by over 100 percent—the traffic threshold at which Yellowstone’s wildlife experts stated that over-snow vehicles could become a more severe or prolonged 'stressor' to Yellowstone’s wildlife, with the potential to adversely affect the fitness of the park’s animals.
In contrast, the Snowcoach Alternative in the Final Environmental Impact Statement emphasizes a mode of access that results, according to NPS statistics, in one vehicle for every 7.7 visitors, rather than one vehicle for every 1.3 visitors. It would thus allow 960 visitors to access and enjoy Yellowstone’s attractions each day with just 120 vehicles. This would be well within the traffic level recommended by wildlife scientists and just one-fifth the level of over-snow traffic that would move through habitat used by bald eagles, bison, coyotes, elk and trumpeter swans under the new 'Preferred Alternative.'
More so, the groups told Director Bomar that Yellowstone officials resorted to a weakening of existing regulations pertaining to the protection of the park's natural resources so they could justify their preferred alternative.
In effect, what NPS has done is justify degradation of resources by changing the standards of measurement at the end of the process. As an example, the FEIS merely states that the “Desired Condition” for wildlife is: “Impacts to wildlife are mitigated, and effective wildlife habitat is protected.” Mitigation of impacts to wildlife does not, obviously, define a condition. It simply states that there will be an effort to make the harm caused to wildlife by over-snow vehicles less severe or serious. Historically, NPS has acknowledged that its legal responsibility in regards to protecting wildlife is established through regulations and Executive Orders that prohibit disturbance of wildlife. Thus, under the new “Desired Condition” standard, the Park Service makes it acceptable to allow ongoing disturbance of wildlife whereas previously the agency has deemed such disturbance unacceptable and illegal. It is now okay under this definition to simply lessen the impacts to Yellowstone’s wildlife, rather than adopt policies that don’t allow it. Similarly, this new standard reduces habitat protection by eliminating the historic goal of minimizing “to the greatest degree practicable” adverse impacts.
The science speaks for itself. Hopefully, Director Bomar will have an opportunity to personally look at that science before she signs off on Superintendent Lewis's preference when it comes to snowmobiles.
"I do feel the Park Service has always monitored, inventoried, and studied their resources and know more about their resources than we've ever know," Director Bomar told me last week in Austin. "We just need to listen and we need to implement their recommendations."
In the case of Yellowstone snowmobiles, the recommendations are to ease back on snowmobiles in the park, not throttle forward.