Judge vaporizes Yellowstone snowmobile ban

A second judge will likely demand some limits on winter traffic

  • Bison share the road with snowmobiles in Yellowstone Nationhal Park, between Madison and Old Faithful

    William Campbell

On Oct. 14, U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer emphatically struck down the Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Brimmer called the ban, which would have prohibited snowmobile traffic but allowed visitors to enter the park in van-like snowcoaches, "a wrong-headed decision, based on poor judgement."

The decision came in response to a lawsuit from the states of Wyoming and Montana, a snowmobile industry group, and several individuals and other organizations. In his 40-page ruling, the Wyoming judge concluded that National Park Service officials, in the process of making their decision, "pre-judged" the outcome, failed to cooperate with other agencies, and deprived the public of a meaningful chance to comment. Brimmer also argued that the Park Service failed to adequately study emissions, noise, and the other impacts of an increased number of snowcoaches in the park.

Though the Park Service had reviewed previous studies that compared snowmobile and snowcoach emissions, and conducted a study of snowcoach noise, the judge commented that "nowhere was there a study of the small windows of snowcoaches usually fogged by passengers’ exhalation, the cramped, uncomfortable seating, and the slowness of the coaches, all of which are to the detriment of Park visitors’ enjoyment of their trip."

Snowmobile advocates, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton cheered the decision. Not surprisingly, environmental groups announced plans to appeal. Though Brimmer repeatedly called the ban a "political" decision, studies conducted by the Park Service under the Clinton and Bush administrations have consistently concluded that a snowmobile ban is the best way to protect park resources.

Snowmobile critics also point out that the initial comment period on the ban had, at the time, attracted one of the greatest number of public comments in Park Service history. "It’s ironic that that process is being thrown out on the grounds that it didn’t involve the public," says Abigail Dillen, an Earthjustice attorney who intervened in the case on behalf of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Despite the uproar, Brimmer’s ruling may not have much of an impact on the snowmobile controversy — thanks to another lawsuit in a separate court.

Last December, in response to a lawsuit from environmental groups, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., nixed a pro-snowmobile plan issued by the Park Service and reinstated the Clinton-era ban (HCN, 2/16/04: Tipping the scales). In February, Brimmer shot back with a restraining order on the newly revived Clinton rule. In response to Sullivan’s ruling, the Park Service is working on a set of "temporary" rules. These rules, which the agency plans to finalize by early November and enforce for up to three winters, would require all snowmobiles to use four-stroke engines instead of the dirtier two-stroke models. Snowmobilers in Yellowstone would have to travel with a professional guide.

The proposed rules would allow 720 snowmobiles into Yellowstone and 140 into Grand Teton each day — only slightly less than the average visitation before the ban. But Judge Sullivan will review the new rules before they go into effect. Though Brimmer’s Oct. 14 ruling prohibits Sullivan from returning to the Clinton ban, environmentalists argue that he could demand significantly tighter rules than the Park Service is now proposing.

Stephen Saunders, former deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for fish, wildlife and parks and one of the architects of the Clinton snowmobile policy, says that despite the most recent ruling, the ban will have a durable legacy. "Even the Bush administration is not trying to go back to the completely unlimited rule we had in effect before," says Saunders. "There’s no way that could be justified with the findings that we made about the damage that was occurring (from snowmobiles) to park resources and values. So now, the argument is over how to limit them."

The author is contributing editor for High Country News.

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