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November 13, 2008 3:30 am

Wyoming judge opens door for more Yellowstone snowmobiles

Written by Tribune Staff

Just when Yellowstone's winter 2009 plans appeared set, a new court decision has muddied the waters.

In September, a District of Columbia judge scuttled Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks' long-term plans for winter use. Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled the parks' plans to allow 540 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone and 65 in Grand Teton were not backed by science.

In response, the parks crafted a temporary plan that would allow 318 snowmobiles each day in Yellowstone and 50 in Grand Teton. That plan was meant as a stop-gap while the parks came up with a new environmental impact statement and plan.

Now, a ruling by Wyoming District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer commands the parks to boost the daily snowmobile limit up to 720 in Yellowstone and 140 in Teton until a new long-term plan is crafted.

Brimmer wrote that if the decision had been up to him, he would have allowed the parks' rule of 540 and 65 daily snowmobiles to stand.

A coalition of environmental groups had challenged the Park Service's rule in federal District Court in the District of Columbia, saying there were too many snowmobiles for the parks' ecosystems to handle.

In mid-September, Sullivan agreed with their concerns, finding that the number of oversnow vehicles would cause undue damage to air quality, soundscapes and wildlife.

Meanwhile, the state of Wyoming and Park County had similarly challenged the plan in Wyoming's Federal District Court — arguing conversely that there were too few snowmobiles allowed.

Brimmer wrote he would have left the plans alone. However, because Sullivan's decision on the winter plans came first, he said he needed to defer to Sullivan's judgement.

That didn't mean the Wyoming judge agreed.

“The livelihood of many residents depends upon the rules promulgated and effected by the NPS. Justice would seem to require, therefore, that a court sitting in the same state that these parks are located be given the opportunity to decide a case of this magnitude. This court, however, was not given that opportunity,” he wrote.

Therefore, Sullivan's decision to void Yellowstone and Grand Teton's winter use plans is unaffected.

With those plans thrown out, the Park Service is forced to revert to a temporary 2004 rule. That rule contained a sunset clause, kicking snowmobiles out of the Park after the 2007-2008 winter season.

Brimmer ordered that the temporary rule be re-instated — without the sunset clause. That effectively puts in place a daily limit of 720 snowmobiles in Yellowstone with 140 in Grand Teton.

“This will provide businesses and tourists with the certainty that is needed in this confusing litigation,” he wrote.

The decision was apparently written before Yellowstone released its temporary snowmobile plan on Nov. 5 for the coming winter season, but finalized after its release.

“At this juncture, the court finds it unlikely that the (National Park Service) will have the ability to promulgate and put into effect a rule for this winter season,” says the decision, signed Nov. 7.