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Bush Shifts Snowmobile Policy Into High Gear

by J.R. Pegg

Snowmobilers Invading Remote Yellowstone Wilderness
Yellowstone snowmobiles
Last year snowmobiles lined up at the gate to enter Yellowstone National Park, where they polluted the air and frightened wildlife
(ENS) WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has reversed a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, despite widespread support for the measure and 10 years of research detailing the negative impact from the machines on the health of the parks and their employees.

The outright ban is not needed, the Bush administration argued, because daily limits on use of snowmobiles and new technologies can adequately protect the parks. Environmentalists and some members of Congress are furious with the new plan, which they believe ignores both science and public opinion.

"The Park Service, in its professional judgment, made a decision that snowmobile use was inappropriate for the national park and did not meet the goals of National Park Service legislation and policy," said Kristin Brengel, campaign manager for the Wilderness Society. "But this administration would rather cater to the industry and the will of the industry, and increase snowmobile use in the park, rather than do what is right for Yellowstone."

Prior to proposing the original ban, which was supposed to take effect this year, the U.S. National Park Service had been studying the impacts of snowmobile use on park wildlife, air quality, human health and visitor experience for 10 years. Their research, which included 375 scientific studies and 22 public hearings, revealed that snowmobile use was negatively affecting each of these factors.

Under the new plan, the Park Service will impose daily limits on snowmobiles in the parks and on part of the highway that connects the two. Both parks are in northwestern Wyoming and Yellowstone extends into Idaho and Montana. Yellowstone was the first U.S. National Park, designated as such in 1872.

There will be no limits on snowmobiles until mid-March, but starting then, the plan calls for a daily total of 1,100 snowmobiles to be allowed in the parks. This figure is higher than the current average daily use of 840 snowmobiles.

Of the 1,100 machines permitted in the park, only 550 would be allowed to pass through the West Yellowstone entrance on any given day, a restriction which has angered the snowmobile business owners in the town of West Yellowstone.

The shift from an outright ban to a limit that is higher than the current average speaks to the influence the snowmobiling lobby has with the Bush administration, according to Nevada's Democratic Senator Harry Reid.

"If you want straight talk on the Bush plan, you have to ask the lobby that pumped over a half a million dollars in just one year into its campaign to dictate the management of America's parks," Reid said in a statement.

The ban, slated to go into effect this year, was challenged by the snowmobiling industry right from the start. Implementation had been delayed by a lawsuit filed by the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA) and the state of Wyoming after the rule was finalized in 2000. In June 2001, the Bush administration settled the suit by requiring the Park Service to reexamine public comment and scientific review.

The National Park Service received some 360,000 comments during the comment period, a record number for a park service rule. More than 80 percent of respondents favored the ban on snowmobiles, a figure that advocates believe exposes the administration's indifference to the public's view on the issue.

The decision is an "insult to the American people," according to Steven Bosak, director, motorized use programs for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

"The administration is not only ignoring the vast majority of Americans who want snowmobiles out of the park, it is folding to the snowmobile industry itself," Bosak said.

Some 75,000 snowmobiles now enter Yellowstone each year, about 16 times the number of automobiles that journey through the park. More than 2.7 million people visited Yellowstone in 2001.

Studies by the National Park Service's Air Resource Division have found that snowmobiles contribute up to 68 percent of the park's annual carbon monoxide emissions, and up to 90 percent of its hydrocarbon pollution.

But snowmobile proponents define the conflict as an issue of access to public lands. Terry Manning, president of the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association, says, "Snowmobilers merely want to preserve winter access to a very limited part of these great National Parks. This is what we do out West in the wintertime. Of course, the sport also contributes greatly to many livelihoods in this part of the country as people from far and wide come to experience the unique winter beauty of these parks."

Industry representatives say some people are ignoring the aspects of National Park Service research that justify snowmobiling.

Ed Klim, president of ISMA, whose members include Arctic Cat, Inc., Bombardier Inc., Polaris Industries and Yamaha Motor Corporation, said in April, that the "real agenda" of the "extreme wing of the environmental movement" is to prohibit all forms of motorized recreation within the two parks.

"This latest study by the NPS shows that existing snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks has not violated any ambient clean air standards," said Klim, referring to the 2002 draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Study prepared by the National Park Service as part of the lawsuit settlement. "What's more, it shows that the new technology snowmobiles reduce emissions by 70 percent."

Manning said, "I just wish someone from the anti-recreation community would accept our invitation to take one of the new technology sleds on a ride up to Old Faithful. I'm pretty sure they'd see snowmobiling in a new light."

Still, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), snowmobiles currently emit more than 220,000 tons of hydrocarbons and 580,000 tons of carbon monoxide emissions each year into the air across the United States.

There is also evidence the pollution and noise from snowmobiles is doing more than harming the ecology of the park. It is putting park employees at risk.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal government agency charged with safeguarding the health of American workers, found that Yellowstone employees were exposed to dangerous levels of noise, carbon monoxide and benzene.

"A single snowmobile can emit the same amount of pollution as 100 cars," said Senator Reid, who added that the California Air Resources Board did a study that found Park Service workers at Yellowstone were exposed to toxic air pollution at concentrations 10 times higher than those along Los Angeles freeways.

This past winter, the government provided Park Service employees with respirators and earplugs to mitigate the pollution and noise of the snowmobiles. It plans to do the same this year.

"You have the administration outfitting its own employees with respirators and hearing devices and at the same time allowing more snowmobiles in the park," Brengel said. "What is wrong with this picture? They are admitting on one hand that these are polluting, dangerous vehicles, but on the other hand saying that it is okay and letting more in."

The Bush plan does call for tighter restrictions on the type of snowmobiles allowed in the parks. Starting next year, rented snowmobiles used in the parks have to use four-stroke engines, which are quieter and less polluting than the traditional two-stroke models. Private owners of the two-stroke machines will be allowed to use them until the 2004-2005 winter season.

Proponents of snowmobiling in the parks do not seem overly concerned with this requirement, as many are already using the newer machines, and the industry has begun transitioning toward less polluting engines.

In September, the EPA issued pollution standards for snowmobiles, calling for reductions of hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions by 30 percent in 2006 with further reductions in 2010 and 2012.

Still, not everyone in the snowmobiling industry is happy with the Bush administration's new plan, with some arguing that the daily limit of 1,100 is too low. They point to the park's average weekend figure of 1,650 snowmobiles a day and believe the new limit will hurt local businesses.

Cooperating agencies in and around Yellowstone are scheduled to meet December 10 to discuss the Park Service proposal. A final version will be released to the public for comment on in February 2003, with a decision expected in early spring.

Congressional efforts to counter the Bush plan will continue unabated, according to a spokesman for Representative Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey. Last spring, Holt and Republican Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, introduced the Yellowstone Protection Act, which makes permanent the Clinton administration ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

"There is a lot of support for the bill, with more than 100 cosponsors," said Holt spokesman Jim Kapsis. "The congressman is upset and outraged by this decision, but he will keep fighting."

The Wilderness Society's Brengel agreed that the fight over snowmobiles in Yellowstone is far from over, but warned that the Bush administration's plan indicates its disregard for conservation.

"Yellowstone is the crown jewel of national parks and how it is treated reflects on how all national parks and public lands will be treated in the future," Brengel said. "That the Bush administration is going to overreach and increase snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park, one can only wonder what is coming next down the pipe."

© 2002 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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Albion Monitor November 22 2002 (

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