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Plan Backs Snowmobiles at Parks

Bush team proposes a high cap on machines at Yellowstone and Grand Teton. It would reverse a Clinton-era ban based on pollution concerns.

November 08, 2002|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

DENVER -- Unveiling its winter recreation policy for Yellowstone National Park, the Bush administration is proposing a daily cap on snowmobile use that would allow 35% more of the machines than typically visit the park.

The proposal is the preferred approach among five outlined in a final environmental impact statement, to be released Tuesday. It would reverse a ban on snowmobiles set by the Clinton administration that was to take effect next year.

The new policy, if it is approved, would go into effect in March and also apply to another Wyoming park, neighboring Grand Teton National Park.

In Yellowstone, the policy would allow 1,100 snowmobiles per day. For the last decade, an average of 815 snowmobiles have entered the park every winter day.

National Park Service officials would not comment on the policy. The Times was briefed on it by members of federal agencies that are participating in the planning process.

Bitterly opposed by many park visitors, environmental groups and park employees, the Bush policy has the support of local communities, snowmobile enthusiasts and manufacturers who lobbied aggressively against the ban. Snowmobiles have been in use in Yellowstone since 1949.

The reversal of the snowmobile ban is the latest in a series of actions by the Bush administration to change Clinton-era environmental policies on public lands. That trend has included efforts to drill for oil and gas in national monuments, to expand motorized recreation and to allow new roads in undeveloped areas of national forests.

Bill Dart, public lands director for Blue Ribbon Coalition, a snowmobile users group, said he welcomed the new policy. He said he expects the Park Service to modify another proposal that would require a guide to accompany each snowmobile visitor.

"They've come around," he said. "As I understand it, it will be business as usual, certainly for this year."

Park Service officials contend that the proposed cap, combined with a requirement permitting only a new generation of cleaner, quieter snow machines, will put an end to business as usual by protecting the health of people and wildlife while reducing noise levels.

Critics scoff at those assurances, pointing to recent findings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that park employees could suffer ill health as a result of snowmobile emissions. The EPA's regional office here recommended in April that snowmobiles not be allowed in the park.

"This [plan] says that Yellowstone can be managed by politics on behalf of special interests, and that science and the law protecting places like this can be set aside," said Jon Catton of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group based in Bozeman, Mont.

The Park Service has received more public comments on the Yellowstone snowmobile issue than any other in the agency's history. More than 360,000 e-mails and letters were received during five public comment periods, and 80% supported a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone.

In September, 127 members of Congress rallied on the Capitol steps to raise support for a legislative ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone.

For several years, park rangers have worn respirators and officials are redesigning entrance kiosks to pump more clean air into them to protect rangers' health. This season, many employees will be fitted with sophisticated hearing protection.

An Occupational Safety and Health Administration study found that park rangers were exposed to unacceptable amounts of engine emissions and noise from snowmobiles in the park.

The OSHA study came about after park employees complained of nausea, headaches, dizziness and lethargy after working in proximity to snowmobiles. Others reported hearing loss.

The ban grew out of 10 years of study that concluded that the machines created air and noise pollution, diminished the experience of other park visitors and put wildlife under stress during the season when the mortality rate is highest.

The EPA report reinforced the concerns that led to the ban.

According to the EPA, the emissions from a single snowmobile can equal that of 100 cars. The agency in September issued rules requiring manufacturers to reduce emissions by 50% by 2012.

A study released in May by the California Air Resources Board and commissioned by the Park Service showed park workers were exposed to hydrocarbons in concentrations 10 times higher than measured at the sides of Los Angeles freeways.

The study concluded: "Efforts to dramatically decrease park employee exposure to toxic air pollutants should be a high priority and implemented immediately."

The snowmobile industry has attacked the studies as "junk science." Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Assn., said that lowered speed limits and cleaner machines will be sufficient to meet park guidelines.

"There are going to be some changes, and not everyone is going to be happy," he said. "But the bottom line is that people will be able to enjoy the park in winter."

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