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New Snowmobiles Emit More Pollution in Tests

Vehicles now allowed at Yellowstone are dirtier than '02 models despite industry promises.

September 04, 2003|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

A new generation of snowmobiles, approved for use in Yellowstone National Park after being promoted as cleaner and quieter, emit more pollution than models produced two years ago, according to test data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The controversial decision to allow snowmobiles in Yellowstone was based on industry promises that models with new engines would produce less pollution to foul the air and water in the nation's oldest national park.

But recent tests on the 2004 models show that the machines produce from 40% to 213% more emissions than 2002 models.

Officials from the Department of the Interior and Yellowstone will meet with industry leaders in Washington on Friday to discuss the implications of the findings and their potential impact on the park's decision to reverse a Clinton-era decision to ban the machines.

The Bush administration's move to reverse the snowmobile ban in Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park was predicated on assurances from manufacturers that new technology would produce models that would reduce harmful emissions and run more quietly.

"We started this all in good faith," said Yellowstone spokeswoman Marsha Karle. "We based our decision on the fact that the machines would continue to be cleaner and quieter and the industry would work toward that end."

The tests on different types of Polaris and Arctic Cat snowmobiles measured emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. Of the three models tested, one didn't pass the emissions standards set by the park and another failed to operate within permissible noise levels.

Measured by another, more conservative method, none of the new machines met the park's standards.

It is not clear which of the two measurements the park will use when certifying snowmobiles for use in Yellowstone, but a park service official said Wednesday that the stricter standard could be enforced more efficiently.

In addition, none of the new machines came close to bettering the emission levels of the 2002 models. By one measure, the latest model produced more than double the hydrocarbons.

"So, when they say 'cleaner and quieter,' you wonder, 'In relation to what?' " said Jon Catton, a Montana conservationist who has lobbied for the snowmobile ban, which was to have taken effect last winter.

A spokesman for Minnesota-based Polaris Industries, the world's largest snowmobile manufacturer, would not comment. Officials with Arctic Cat Inc., also based in Minnesota, could not be reached.

Snowmobile manufacturers have lobbied hard to allow the machines in the park, even after 10 years of scientific and public health studies repeatedly concluded that the vehicles were a threat to the park's air and water quality as well as the health of employees and the public. By far the most popular form of winter recreation in the parks, 69,000 snowmobiles entered the parks last year from gates in Wyoming and Montana.

Park rangers in some areas of Yellowstone wear respirators and hearing protection to counter the machines' emissions and high-pitched whine.

In its decision to overturn the ban, the park service relied heavily on vows by manufacturers to produce a new generation of snowmobiles. In the final rule, then-regional director Karen Wade wrote that "the [National Park Service] fully expects, and the industry has stated that, technological improvements will continue and that snowmobiles entering the parks will be even cleaner and quieter."

Kym Hall, who oversaw aspects of the snowmobile ban for the National Park Service in Washington, said market forces, not technology, might account for the lack of progress toward cleaner machines.

Many snowmobilers prefer the more powerful machines -- which tend to be noisier and more polluting and would not be allowed in the parks.

"Yellowstone is a small part of the snowmobile market," Hall said. "If they produce a four-stroke machine that is not as powerful, there is a distinct possibility there won't be a market ....They may have the technology to build it, but not the market to sell it."

Roger Kennedy, park service director under Clinton when the ban was put in place, said industry, not science, has driven the Bush administration decision.

"The important truth is that when you believe you have an administration captive to your economic interest, you will press your advantage. This is what you get," he said.

Hundreds of studies by both federal and independent agencies have concluded that snowmobiles adversely affect the park. As the park service made its decision to allow the machines, its own 330-page report concluded that the best way to protect the air quality and wildlife was to maintain the ban.

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