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November 04, 2008 3:01 am

Yellowstone proposes temporary plan to allow snowmobiles

Written by Tribune Staff

Yellowstone National Park plans to allow snowmobiles inside its gates this winter.

The Park Service made a temporary winter use plan available for public comment yesterday (Monday) that would allow 318 commercially-guided snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches to enter Yellowstone's gates each day. That includes the East Entrance and Sylvan Pass.

The Park Service had originally proposed allowing 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches into Yellowstone each day, but that decision was voided by a federal district court.

The National Parks Conservation Association, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other environmental groups had sued to overturn the 540 snowmobile plan, saying the machines unnecessarily damage the park's ecosystem.

On Sept. 15, Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan agreed, ruling that the snowmobiles were too detrimental to the park's air, soundscapes and wildlife. Sullivan threw out the Park Service's plan, which included Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, as well as Yellowstone.

Had the Park Service not drafted a new plan, all snowmobiles and snowcoaches would have been banned from Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks this coming winter.

However, the service did craft an interim rule, basing it on a newly-drafted 255-page environmental assessment. The assessment weighed the pros and cons of two alternatives — taking no action (and banning oversnow travel), or choosing to “continue recent use levels.”

Yellowstone averaged 294 snowmobiles each day last winter.

The assessment found that allowing recent use levels achieved a better balance between conservation and recreation than banning snowmobiles completely.

“While alternative (one, no action) would certainly preserve nature, it would hardly allow any people to experience the sights of Yellowstone and Grand Teton,” it says.

Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said the specifics of the temporary plan stem from a 2004 environmental analysis that found 318 machines would have “no significant impact.”

Nash said work on a permanent plan is still a ways off. With the winter season just six weeks away, “All of our focus is on this temporary plan,” he said.

Meanwhile, a case is pending in Wyoming District Court in which the state and Park County contend that 720 snowmobiles should be allowed each day.

District Judge Clarence Brimmer has said that a ruling would come in early November. The National Parks Conservation Association is seeking to have the case declared moot, as Sullivan has already ruled on the matter.

Deputy Park County Attorney Jim Davis, who is handling the case for the county, said he expects a decision from Judge Brimmer very soon.

Yellowstone will accept public comments on the temporary rule until Nov. 17. Nash said the most influential comments are those that raise questions or specific issues for the Park Service to consider.

“An awful lot of our comments are, ‘I like this,' ‘I don't like this,'” he said. “Those are not the most useful comments.”

More information on the temporary plan and public comment period is available here.