A roaring rift over snowmobiles

Parks: Enthusiasts and environmentalists are split over a plan to limit the vehicles rather than ban them at Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

February 16, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - There are days, more than Kitty Eneboe cares to count, when being a ranger at the nation's oldest national park is more like being part of a NASCAR pit crew.

Hundreds of snowmobiles roar up to her entrance station at Yellowstone National Park and turn crisp evergreen-scented winter air into a malodorous blue-tinged haze capable of inducing headaches and watery eyes.

On those days, Eneboe checks park passes from behind the glass of her kiosk as a blower forces clean air inside. Next to her on the counter is a gas mask for when she has to go out.

"When it gets cold and you have a temperature inversion, there's nothing you can do. I know if I go out there I'm going to get a headache," says Eneboe, an eight-year park veteran. "On a bad day, you can get it real quick."

A three-year plan by the Clinton administration to clear the air at Yellowstone and phase out snowmobiles by next winter was shelved by the Bush administration as it sought to settle a lawsuit by snowmobile manufacturers.

Instead, Yellowstone officials are set to release the final version of an environmental study Wednesday that will require quieter, cleaner snowmobiles and limit the daily number of machines at Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park. The plan is scheduled to be approved by a regional National Park Service administrator March 24.

Beginning next winter, Yellowstone would limit the daily number of snowmobiles to 950, 110 more than the daily average but fewer than peak days, when the total can reach nearly 1,700. Grand Teton, which gets far fewer visitors, would be limited to 150 daily.

Public opinion

Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis says the environmental study takes into account new snowmobile technology that was not on the market when the Clinton decision was made. Also, the proposed policy would require park-trained commercial guides for 80 percent of the snowmobiles entering the park to ensure compliance with the rules.

But the study runs contrary to public opinion. The snowmobile issue generated more comments - 350,000 letters and e-mail messages - than any in park service history. Eighty percent of them favored a ban.

Even the Japan Times weighed in last month: "Allowing continued snowmobile use in national parks makes a mockery of the U.S. government's responsibility to protect the nation's beautiful places. As well, the astonishing about-face on this issue is a shameful and sad blow for the national parks movement worldwide."

Policy reversal

Lewis says she expects emotions to run high when it comes to protecting and using one of the National Park Service's crown jewels.

"People are very passionate about Yellowstone. It's the same passion that got the park established in 1872," she says. "The day no one has anything to say about what happens here is the day I don't want to be around."

The policy reversal has pleased snowmobile enthusiasts and manufacturers, but it has infuriated environmentalists, who have filed a lawsuit and promise more legal challenges.

"The park service was under considerable pressure from the Interior Department and the White House to do this," says Sean Smith, public lands director of the Bluewater Network, one of the plaintiffs. "The new technology is cleaner and quieter, but it's not clean and quiet."

Even an earlier version of the National Park Service plan acknowledges that banning snowmobiles "best preserves the unique historic, cultural and natural resources" of the park.

The Nov. 12 draft, obtained by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, states that a snowmobile ban results in the "lowest levels of impacts to air quality, water quality, natural soundscapes and wildlife."

By contrast, the report says the Bush administration's "preferred alternative" permits high levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions over 14,000 acres and increases the conflicts with wildlife.

Snowmobile manufacturers say the four-stroke engine available on at least one model in each of their lines burns fuel more efficiently and makes the machine more like cars than overgrown lawn mowers. The new machines reduce hydrocarbon emissions by 80 percent when compared to two-stroke models.

Economic worries

All of the technical discussions mean little in West Yellowstone, the self-proclaimed "snowmobile capital of the world," which relies on the machines to attract enough tourists to tide residents over to the peak summer vacation months.

Jerry Johnson, mayor of West Yellowstone, says the local economy and tax base would suffer if the park service banned the machines. He points out that there are 14 snowmobile rental agencies (one of them is his), 20 restaurants and two dozen motels in town that count on the winter business.

But the November park service report says the economic effect on local communities would be "negligible to minor" because there are hundreds of miles of trails outside the park.

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