On the eve of the opening of snowmobile season at Yellowstone National Park, a federal judge Tuesday ordered the park to scrap a Bush administration plan to expand snowmobile use there and called for a re-imposition of a Clinton-era policy phasing out the machines.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, in a strongly worded 48-page brief, ruled that overturning the Clinton ban, which was never allowed to take effect, was "arbitrary and capricious" and ran contrary to the National Park Service's scientific analysis of the effects on air quality and wildlife.
The ruling, in a lawsuit brought by several environmental groups, also applies to neighboring Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, which connects the two parks in northwest Wyoming.
The plaintiffs, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, argued that the park service in reversing the ban had ignored its own research, which concluded that prohibiting snowmobiles would be the best way to protect the parks' resources.
The decision to allow snowmobiles has been one of this administration's most hotly debated environmental policies and a focal point for critics who accuse it of favoring commercial interests over the protection of the country's most cherished natural landmarks.
The administration defended its policy, saying that even though the new rule would have allowed about 35% more snowmobiles into the park than historical averages, those would have been required to have cleaner and quieter engines.
Park service officials said the administration sought to balance its duty to protect the park and its responsibility to allow the public to visit and enjoy it.
Sullivan cited the park service's findings that even if cleaner, quieter engines were used, the damage to the health of visitors, wildlife and park employees would be too great.
In the District of Columbia court ruling, Sullivan wrote that the rationale offered for the policy change was "weak at best" and said that "the decision to overturn the ban was completely politically driven and result oriented."
Snowmobiling has been the most popular method of touring Yellowstone in the winter. Although visitors also explore on skis and snowshoes and in park-operated snow coaches, three of four winter visitors enter the park on snowmobiles.
Nevertheless, public opinion has run overwhelmingly in favor of a ban in three separate public comment periods during the past two years. The most recent comments sought by the park service this fall showed people in support of a total snowmobile ban by a 99-1 margin.
The ruling, made only 12 hours before the start of the two parks' winter season, calls for a 50% reduction in snowmobiles this winter and a total ban for the 2004-05 season. Snow coaches, the park's mass transit alternative to snowmobiles, will become the primary way for visitors to tour Yellowstone in winter.
Under the ruling, 490 snowmobiles per day will be able enter Yellowstone this winter and 50 per day in Grand Teton. The judge's decision allows older-model snowmobiles to enter the parks this year -- the same machines that would have been phased out under the Bush administration plan.
However, park Supt. Suzanne Lewis said late Tuesday that only snowmobiles that are part of commercially guided tours will be allowed in the park, a policy that was part of the Clinton administration plan to gradually eliminate the machines.
Lewis said that because each tour can only accommodate 10 snowmobiles, many riders who made reservations to visit the park on their own on opening day would be turned away.
Lewis did not give reservation figures, but said, "Needless to say, the non-commercially guided reservations were heavy."
She said park rangers would refer visitors to trails in adjacent national forests. Park officials were working late Tuesday to contact snowmobile rental agencies to let them know of the policy change.
Officials of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized recreation advocacy group that has sued to retain snowmobile access to the parks, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday. Lewis would not comment when asked if the park service intended to appeal the judge's decision.
Long-time critics of snowmobiling in the parks applauded the ruling. Denis Galvin, deputy director of the National Park Service under Presidents Reagan and Clinton and during the first year of the current Bush administration, said the ruling reflected common sense.
Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who co-sponsored unsuccessful legislation this year to ban snowmobiles in the parks, said the ruling did what the administration should have done. "It is a sad commentary on this administration's environmental record that the courts have had to intervene to make sure that the Department of Interior is fulfilling its mission to protect our national lands," he said. "It should never have come to this."
In the last few years, studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded that snowmobiles would create unhealthy levels of noise and air pollution. The EPA found that emissions from a single snowmobile can equal that of 100 cars.