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A walk in the park

The whine of the snowmobile is not a sound visitors to Yellowstone expect -- or should have to hear.

November 24, 2006

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION has studied and studied the effects of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. The studies' conclusions: Despite some improvements in emissions, snowmobiles continue to pollute the park's air and disturb its quiet. The administration's conclusion: Let's continue to allow 720 of them into the park every day.

This week's nonsensical if preliminary decision by the National Park Service comes less than two weeks after it released a battery of damning new studies, leaving one to wonder whether officials bothered reading the reports. The proposal will be put to public comment in March.

Although the temporary rules at Yellowstone have allowed 720 snowmobiles a day for each of the last two seasons, on average only about one-third as many enter the park, probably because of inclement weather. Instead, more visitors opted to tour the park in a snow coach -- a sort of mini-snow bus that has less effect on the park.

This has been an accidental blessing for Yellowstone. One recent study found that fewer snowmobiles had led to a steep reduction in the park's air pollution over the last two years, even as other research showed that the vehicles, contrary to manufacturers' promises, have not gotten any cleaner or quieter over the last five years. Yellowstone's air quality remains out of compliance with Park Service standards. Another study by the Park Service reported in September that snowmobile-dominated noise is audible about two-thirds of the time at the park's favorite tourist spots, including Old Faithful.

Until manufacturers produce a truly quiet, low-pollution snowmobile, the vehicles do not belong in the park at all. There is plenty of national forestland in the area where snowmobilers can play, but the many visitors who come for the park's serene beauty should not have their experience spoiled by the few who want to go whizzing around on noisy machines that scare wildlife.

One of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's admirable first acts after taking office earlier this year was to trash a proposal that would have compromised the national parks' mission. He returned the National Park Service to its original vision of placing conservation over recreation and commerce. That vision is nowhere to be seen in this plan for Yellowstone.

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