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November 25, 2008 5:54 am

Snowmobile battle poised to continue

Written by Tribune Staff

New temporary plan draws ire of conservationists

Plans for the upcoming winter season in Yellowstone National Park are set, but the long-term picture remains as foggy as ever.

The more than decade-old conflict over snowmobiling in Yellowstone reached a temporary stalemate Nov. 7, when Wyoming District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer ordered park officials to allow 720 snowmobiles per day until a new, permanent rule is drafted.


The ruling pleased local officials and businesses, but drew the fire of conservationists.

Park County had been pushing for a permanent 720 limit in Brimmer's court.

“I'm pleased about (the decision),” said Park County Commission Chairman Tim French. “I just hope it ends up as the final rule.”

French said the number creates a good balance.

“It's not too many, and it's not too few that nobody can go in there,” he said.

Originally, Yellowstone had planned to cap daily snowmobile use at 540 machines, but Federal District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia voided those plans in September.

Environmental groups had issued a legal challenge to Yellowstone's snowmobile limits, saying they were unsupported by science. Sullivan agreed, kicking all over-snow vehicles out of the park.

“According to (the National Park Service's) own data, the (winter-use plan) will increase air pollution, exceed the use levels recommended by NPS biologists to protect wildlife and cause major adverse impacts to the natural soundscape in Yellowstone,” he wrote.

In response to Sullivan's order, the Park Service had proposed a temporary rule that would allow only 318 snowmobiles each day. The number was based on average daily use over recent years.

However, just days after that plan was released, Brimmer issued his decision. His order effectively scrapped the temporary 318 plan in favor of a 2004 rule that will allow up to 720 snowmobiles per day in the 2008-09 season.

Brimmer wrote that he would have upheld the 540 rule, but was forced to defer to Sullivan's judgment.

One of the environmental groups that challenged Yellowstone's plans, the National Parks Conservation Association, had called the 318 plan one they could “live with,” and “a step in the right direction.”

They are not happy, however, with the latest 720 plan.

“In a word, it's somewhat surprising and disappointing,” said Tim Stevens, the association's Yellowstone program manager.

His thoughts were echoed by Amy McNamara of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition — another party in the suit. McNamara said the Park Service's data provides no basis to allow that many snowmobiles.

“In a 250-page document, they concluded that fewer snowmobiles — not 540, not 720 — was best for the park and its visitors,” McNamara said. “We're very shocked by the change in direction.”

What the data says is apparently open to interpretation.

Commenting on Yellowstone's proposed 318 plan, Gov. Freudenthal's office wrote that past studies have “demonstrated conclusively that allowing as many as 1,025 snowmobiles to enter the park each day will not cause unacceptable impacts to park resources.”

In a news release last week, the Park Service wrote, “Monitoring data from the past four winters shows excellent air quality, few wildlife disturbances and reduced sound impacts. All were at fully acceptable levels, and below levels recorded during historic, unregulated use in the parks, which show that the limited use of guided, (best available technology) snowmobiles has worked.”

The lone licensed commercial snowmobile guide for East Entrance travel — Gary Fales Outfitting of Rimrock Ranch — agrees with Yellowstone's assessment.

“(After the requirements,) there was great improvement in the air quality, the noise, the friendliness of the people,” Fales said. “It's been very nice.”

He said he's baffled as to why it's necessary to further cut back snowmobiling.

“I don't understand the argument, myself,” he said. Fales sees it as an effort to restrict access to public land.

Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said much of the argument over snowmobiling limits is meaningless.

“(In recent years,) we've averaged under 320 a day. There's nothing to suggest to us that number would be significantly different,” he said. “The discussion of 318 versus 720 and the potential impacts seems to forget what the actual numbers have been.”

McNamara said assuming that snowmobile levels will remain constant is irresponsible on the Park Service's part.

“That's them not doing their jobs,” she said.

Nash said all of the comments received on the temporary plan will be used to help to craft a new permanent plan.

He said he didn't know how long that process will take.

He noted that the Park Service has drafted three environmental impact statements over the years, “and have yet to succeed in crafting a long-term plan.”

“Any decision is certainly subject to review and has the potential for litigation,” he said. “That's simply a fact of life.”

The National Parks Conservation Association and Greater Yellowstone Coalition are likely to sue again if the final rule includes snowmobiles.

Their ultimate goal is to have all of the machines phased out in favor of snow coaches.

“This is something we've been really clear about for years,” said McNamara.

Up to 78 daily snow coaches will be allowed under the temporary plan.

Commissioner French called the environmental organizations involved in the issue “suit-happy.”

“I'll continue to fight them, because they're wrong in what they're doing,” he said.

French said the groups don't seem willing to compromise.

“They never offer anything constructive,” he said. “They don't want to work with anybody.”

In response, McNamara noted that her organization has advocated for phased — not immediate — snowmobile removal. This winter, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition wanted the park to allow 263 machines per day — maintaining the average from the past five seasons.

French believes once snowmobiles are out of the picture, the environmental groups will continue restricting access.

“What's next?” he asked. “They're going to go after summer use.”

Stevens dismissed the concern as “the old conspiracy theory.”

“You've got to remember that the winter season is an especially critical time for wildlife,” he said. “We don't have the same concerns about the summer, for obvious reasons.”