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Plan to Allow More Snowmobiles

A Bush administration proposal would let more into two national parks in the next three years.

August 20, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As courts weigh the fate of a President Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the Bush administration Thursday proposed letting up to 720 snowmobiles a day into Yellowstone and 140 a day into Grand Teton in the next three years.

Snowmobile enthusiasts and businesses near the parks expressed support for the proposal, but environmentalists and some former park superintendents said it ignored countless studies showing that snowmobiles were noisy, dirty and detrimental to wildlife, visitors and park employees.

"It's mostly good news," said Glen Loomis, who runs a snowmobile business in West Yellowstone, Mont. "But I wish it was larger numbers. With clean, quiet snowmobiles, I'm convinced the number of snowmobiles going into the park could be more than that without damage to park resources."

But Michael Finley, a former superintendent of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Everglades national parks, said the proposal marked a new low in what he called the administration's "pattern of ignoring science to benefit a special interest at the public's expense."

The Bush administration will accept public comment on its proposal and expects to release a final rule in late October or early November, according to Suzanne Lewis, superintendent of Yellowstone. The three-year plan is intended to give park users and area businesses more certainty about snowmobile rules while a longer-term plan is being prepared.

The Yellowstone plan would allow more than twice as many snowmobiles a day as entered the park on average last winter, when the rules were in flux, but about the same number as toured the park in previous years. Snowmobile users would be required to tour the park in groups led by commercial guides, and they could ride only snowmobiles that met the government's pollution and noise requirements.

Those in Grand Teton park could ride without guides.

The National Park Service said in an environmental analysis that, under the proposal, "effects to employee hearing would be adverse and moderate," and that employees and visitors might want to wear hearing protection. Exposure to toxic air pollutants would "remain a concern," the agency said.

Finley said the proposal ignored two extensive environmental impact studies, one done under the Bush administration. They showed that snowmobiling would cause significant harm to visitors' and employees' health and to park resources, he said.

"The administration is now using a superficial process to sweep under the rug what 10 years of science have demonstrated conclusively is best for our nation's first national park and the health and safety of its visitors," Finley added.

But Park Service officials defended the proposal as the right balance between providing winter activities for visitors and protecting park resources.

Thursday's announcement was the latest twist in the convoluted saga of the rules for snowmobiles in the two parks.

In the Clinton administration's final days, it adopted a plan to phase out snowmobiles, citing concerns about wildlife and air quality.

The Bush administration last year overturned the ban and adopted a rule that would have let up to 950 snowmobiles a day enter Yellowstone and 400 in Grand Teton as long as the machines met emission and noise limits.

In December, a federal judge in Washington blocked that rule, saying it ran contrary to the National Park Service scientific analysis of effects on air quality and wildlife. He reinstated the Clinton administration ban.

But in February, another federal judge, this one in Wyoming, issued an injunction temporarily preventing the government from banning snowmobiles. Bill Horn, a Washington attorney representing snowmobile manufacturers and enthusiasts, said he expected that the judge might make his final decision this fall.

Lewis said she hoped the new policy would give Yellowstone visitors and the businesses that serve them more certainty about what the rules would be in coming seasons.

When last snowmobile season started, no more than 490 snowmobiles a day were permitted in the park, as required by the Clinton-era rule. After the Wyoming judge's ruling, up to 780 snowmobiles a day were permitted.

Horn said the administration's proposal should have allowed more snowmobiles into the parks because "any of the concerns about impacts should be addressed by the cleaner and quieter machines."

"We appreciate the administration and the Park Service's efforts to continue a 40-year tradition of snowmobiles in these parks," Horn said. "But we still think they're being a little too restrictive."

But environmentalists pointed to new Park Service data showing that the new snowmobiles were noisier than expected.

"I think it shows that they're more concerned about getting snowmobiles into the park than protecting the park," said Steve Bosak of the National Parks Conservation Assn.

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