Yellowstone snowmobilers suffer whiplash

Judge says Interior Department is to blame for last-minute reinstatement of snowmobile ban

  • Patrick Bagley

The Bush administration’s long, steady push to keep snowmobiles running in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks has finally been broken off by the courts.

On Dec. 16, just hours before the snowmobile season was scheduled to throttle up, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., killed a pro-snowmobile plan issued by the National Park Service under Bush. Ruling on lawsuits brought by environmental groups, Judge Sullivan blasted the plan as "severely flawed" and "completely politically driven."

Instead, the judge reinstalled a plan, originally issued in 2000 under the Clinton administration, which was designed to protect wildlife, clean air and quiet. That plan cuts the traffic to about 550 recreational snowmobiles in the parks each day this winter — half the number allowed under the Bush plan — and bans them entirely beginning next winter. From then on, winter tourists will have to travel on skis or snowshoes, or ride in van-like snowcoaches.

The ban was supported by many current and former Park Service staffers, along with a lineup of former Department of Interior officials and the great majority of public comment. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association filed the lawsuit to bring back the ban.

The Bush administration, at the urging of the snowmobile industry and snowmobile groups, had pressured the parks to back off (HCN, 11/25/02: Feds bail on snowmobile ban). Judge Sullivan found evidence of the internal politics involved, including Park Service notes that said Bush’s secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, "wants to be able to come away saying some snowmobiles are allowed."

Though manufacturers have begun producing snowmobiles that are much cleaner and somewhat quieter for use in the parks, the judge cited the park’s own research, which said the new machines are still not clean or quiet enough.

The ruling caused upheaval here, in a town that bills itself as "The Snowmobile Capital of the World." Betting that the Bush plan would stand, snowmobile-rental businesses have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars adding cleaner machines to their fleets. "It’s cruel and unusual punishment," said Randy Roberson, who runs a rental fleet, motels and a snowmobile dealership. But snowmobilers still have access to hundreds of miles of trails in nearby national forests, as well as the town’s streets and an old airstrip where they race.

Judge Sullivan said neither he nor the environmentalists should be blamed for the last-minute timing of his ruling. The Interior Department delayed formally issuing the "final rule" on the Bush plan until just six days before the season was to open, he said, and the timing was "entirely in the control of the federal defendants."

Yellowstone Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis offered little comment. Pro-snowmobile groups and Wyoming’s attorney general have appealed, and are hoping for a quick decision from a higher court, but the process could stretch out for a year. The state of Wyoming has also reopened a second suit in federal court, hoping to derail the Clinton plan again.

Such persistence "promotes conflict and increases uncertainty," said Michael Scott, director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which has promised to promote snowcoach tourism. "And that isn’t good for the park or for the gateway communities."

Environmental groups disagree about snowcoaches. The Fund For Animals, the Blue Water Network and other groups filed a separate lawsuit seeking to halt all motorized winter travel, including snowcoaches. The groups claim trail grooming distorts wildlife migration patterns, opening routes for bison to stray outside the park, where they are killed due to fears they could spread brucellosis to cattle. In response to that suit, Judge Sullivan ordered the government to take a hard, formal look at all trail grooming.

The author is a staff reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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