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National Perspective | UPDATE

Park Service Ruling Calls for Ban on Snowmobiles


DENVER — Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks made official Wednesday what some outdoor enthusiasts have long dreaded: Snowmobiles will be phased out and eventually banned in the parks in three years.

The decision comes at the start of Yellowstone's winter season, when snowmobiles and snow coaches are the only motorized means to enter the park in northwest Wyoming. About three-quarters of Yellowstone's winter visitors navigate the park's unplowed roads astride a snowmobile.

The ruling was expected but nevertheless inflamed the debate over vehicle access and recreational use in national parks.

Snowmobile advocates say the ban is another step toward restricting public use of public lands.

"It's a slippery slope," said Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Assn. "If you took out the word 'snowmobile' and put in 'automobile,' you would see that they are preparing to remove automobiles in national parks."

Officials said there will be no change in snowmobile use this season in the two parks and the adjacent John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. The vehicles will be phased out starting next year and banned by 2003-04.

"Our obligation in managing winter use in these parks is to ensure that public activities we allow conserve park resources and values for future generations," said Karen Wade, intermountain regional director for the National Park Service. "Unfortunately, snowmobiles have been shown to harm wildlife, air quality and the natural quiet of these parks."

The new policy regarding snowmobiles, introduced in Yellowstone in 1963, was precipitated by a 1997 lawsuit by the Fund for Animals. The group requested a study of the effect that trails made by snowmobiles have had on wildlife migration, particularly bison. Wildlife advocates say bison follow these trails and wander out of the park, where they may be shot.

"This is huge," said Sean Smith, a former Yellowstone ranger who is public lands director for the San Francisco-based Bluewater Network. "We are extremely pleased with the Park Service decision to enforce the law to protect park resources."

The Bluewater Network, a coalition of conservation groups, petitioned the Park Service last year to ban recreational snowmobiles throughout the park system.

Smith cited a Park Service study that found snowmobiles were responsible for as much as 90% of the annual hydrocarbon pollution in Yellowstone, although they are outnumbered by automobiles, 16 to 1.

Snowmobile advocates say the industry is developing machines that are cleaner and quieter. There are 1.6 million snowmobiles in the U.S., according to industry figures. According to one estimate, there are 130,000 miles of designated snowmobile trails nationwide--and about 500 are in national parks.

The plan for Yellowstone and Grand Teton does not outlaw snow coaches, which meet air quality standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They are 12- to 14-passenger vehicles that resemble minivans perched atop tank-like treads. The commercially operated vehicles cost up to $75,000 and, according to some surveys, are not as popular with visitors as are snowmobiles.

"My mother is 67 years old, she enjoys the park in winter and she can ride a snowmobile, but she's not going to cross-country ski in," said Vicki Eggers, former director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce and a snowmobile advocate. "My mom can't get up into a snow coach. What's she supposed to do?"

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