Park County, state fight for right to sue feds

Posted 1/27/11

“If anybody has standing, it’s Park County,” said Park County Commissioner Tim French in a Wednesday interview, adding later, “We should absolutely be allowed to argue our point of view in the court.”

Wyoming and Park County had …

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Park County, state fight for right to sue feds


Park County and the state of Wyoming are fighting for their right to sue the federal government over lowered snowmobile limits in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

The county and state are appealing a September decision by federal District Court Judge Alan Johnson in Cheyenne that said they lacked the legal standing to challenge the National Park Service’s rules for winter use in the two parks.

“If anybody has standing, it’s Park County,” said Park County Commissioner Tim French in a Wednesday interview, adding later, “We should absolutely be allowed to argue our point of view in the court.”

Wyoming and Park County had challenged a 2009 Park Service decision which, in part, dropped Yellowstone snowmobile limits to no more than 318 commercially-guided trips per day — down from 720 in earlier years — and also lowered snowmobile levels in Grand Teton National Park.

The county and state argued the lower limits were environmentally unnecessary and would damage their tax base and tourism efforts, among other concerns.

However, siding with attorneys from the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group, Johnson found the state and county’s concerns of being harmed economically by lower snowmobile limits were “speculative, conjectural and hypothetical.”

Further, he said the state didn’t have the legal authority to sue on behalf of its citizens. Pointing to prior case law, Johnson wrote, “it is no part of its (the state’s) duty or power to enforce the rights of citizens in respect of their relations with the federal government.”

He suggested that snowmobile outfitters and others directly affected by the suit would be the appropriate party to bring a legal challenge.

The state and county, joined by the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Wyoming and Park County have more at stake as a result of the 2009 Winter Use Plans than any single individual, visitor, merchant, or guide,” wrote the parties in a brief filed Monday. “It defies logic for the law to permit the (National Parks Conservation Association) to participate in this litigation based on the actions of as little as one of its members, but to conclude that Wyoming and Park County do not have standing to redress the unlawful acts of the (National Park Service) within the borders of the state and county.”

They contend Johnson was wrong in finding the loss of tourism and tax dollars are hypothetical.

With access to Yellowstone restricted, snowmobilers may cancel their trips, head to Montana instead or head out on other Wyoming trails, shifting the environmental impact and potentially overburdening other trails, the parties wrote.

The brief notes that when the rule was released, the Park Service said that, based on recent daily use, the 318-sled limit would mean turning away snowmobilers one out of every four days at Yellowstone’s gates.

“Given the undisputed fact that the 2009 Winter Use Plans will prohibit the entry of snowmobilers who would otherwise enter the Park on peak days, the District Court’s conclusion that Wyoming and Park County’s injuries are speculative was incorrect,” wrote the parties.

Yellowstone, the brief says, is the key tourism draw for Wyoming and Park County.

“It all boils down to our socio-economics of the county, and we’re kind of tied to the hip with how Yellowstone Park is managed,” said French.

Johnson had found that, even if he had voided the Park Service’s 318-sled rule, “there is no guarantee that the claimed tax revenues would be generated or that the claimed economic losses would not occur.”

Other concerns raised in the brief say the Park Service did not follow environmental policy laws and did not address their comments, such as those asking the Park Service to provide for non-commercial snowmobiling in Yellowstone. The state and county also say they have the standing to bring a legal challenge on behalf of their citizens when the federal government fails to represent them.

Johnson rejected those arguments in his September ruling.

If it stands, the judge’s decision could potentially prohibit the county and state from challenging future snowmobile regulations in Yellowstone.

That would be a significant change to the long-running legal battle over winter use.

Over the past decade, snowmobile advocates — including the state, county and snowmobile manufacturers association — and snowmobile opponents — including the National Parks Conservation Association and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition — have battled back and forth before judges in the Wyoming and District of Columbia federal district courts. The groups have challenged and the judges have voided three previous plans — one banning all snowmobiles, one allowing 950 machines a day, and finally a plan allowing 540 snowmobiles a day.

The 318 snowmobile limit, which also allows for up to 78 snowcoaches a day into Yellowstone, is a temporary rule that expires at the end of this winter season. The rules for Grand Teton that are also the subject of the appeal — allowing 25 machines per day on Grassy Lake Road and 25 on Jackson Lake while closing the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail — are intended to be permanent.

Park Service officials are working on a new permanent rule to guide winter use in Yellowstone.

Park County Commission Chairman Bucky Hall said the county has no plans to give up its fight.

“We’re going to stay engaged until the bitter end,” Hall said.