Suits filed to block YNP rule

Posted 11/24/09

The state of Wyoming immediately filed suit on Friday morning, challenging the temporary rule in federal District Court in Cheyenne.

“This policy continues the Park Service's unacceptable pattern of limiting public access to the public's …

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Suits filed to block YNP rule


State and county sue, environmental groups don'tThe state of Wyoming and Park County are suing the federal government over cuts to the number of snowmobiles allowed into Yellowstone National Park this winter.On Friday, the National Park Service published a new, temporary rule that will guide snowmobile and snowcoach access over the next two winter seasons. The rule holds the maximum number of daily snowcoaches constant at 78, but cuts the number of snowmobiles from up to 720 per day to 318.

The state of Wyoming immediately filed suit on Friday morning, challenging the temporary rule in federal District Court in Cheyenne.

“This policy continues the Park Service's unacceptable pattern of limiting public access to the public's lands,” said Gov. Dave Freudenthal in a statement.

Yellowstone officials have said they are trying to set a number that will withstand judicial scrutiny while a new, permanent winter rule is compiled.

The Park Service's earlier plans to allow up to 540 snowmobiles a day were struck down by District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., who found in September 2008 that the machines were unnecessarily degrading Yellowstone's ecosystem.

Sullivan ordered the Park Service to complete a new Environmental Impact Statement and rule.

Yellowstone officials have said that until that new environmental impact statement is completed, federal law prohibits them from allowing any more than 318 snowmobiles per day.

However, last season, federal Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne ordered the park to continue allowing up to 720 machines daily, and the state wants a judge to do the same thing for the next two seasons.

The state asks for the 720-snowmobile limit to be reinstated until a permanent rule is completed — something that the Park Service hopes to finish by November of 2011.

Over the past five winters, actual daily use has averaged 259 snowmobiles and 31 snowcoaches.

If recent use remained constant this year, would-be visitors on snowmobile would be turned away about once out of every four days.

“Inexplicably, the 2009 Winter Use Plans actually authorize twice as many snowcoaches (78) as the historic average (around 30), while cutting snowmobile entries to less than half (318) of that previously authorized (720) and well below historic demand,” says the state's complaint. “There is no rational basis to discriminate against snowmobiles in this fashion and no rational explanation for the disparity between the two modes of transporation.”

The state is also challenging a separate rule that cuts snowmobiling in Grand Teton National Park to no more than 50 machines per day.

As of press time, Park County had not filed suit over Yellowstone's winter rules, but Deputy Park County Attorney Jim Davis said the county planed to file a challenge “as soon as possible,” likely by Monday evening.

The county is contending that 318 snowmobiles is too few and, like the state, protests Yellowstone's requirement that all snowmobiliers be led by a commercial guide.

County Commissioner Tim French said on Monday that the guiding requirement has stifled the number of snowmobilliers entering the park — numbers which peaked around 1,400 daily snowmobiles during the 2003-04 season.

In filing the suit, “We're just trying to preserve our argument that we need the non-commercial (access) so people can go through the park,” said French.

If the county does not continue to press its case, the park service will say, “You've never challenged that before,” said French, adding, “We want to make sure that argument's always there.”

In a planning document, the Park Service wrote that it would look at the possibility of non-commercial guides as it develops a new, final rule. All options will be on the table as work on the new plan begins this winter.

French, however, has been skeptical.

“I am guaranteeing you they'll never talk about anything above 318,” he said at a meeting last month.

As of Monday morning, no lawsuits appeared to have been filed by environmental groups regarding the temporary rule.

A spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition said the group is “staying the course” on the temporary plan.

“The 318 (rule) is a step in the right direction as we work toward a phase-out of snowmobiles,” said Jeff Welsch, the coalition's communications director.

Yellowstone's 2009-2010 winter season is slated to begin Dec. 15, with the east gate opening to travelers on Dec. 22.