Snowmobiles will be allowed in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park under a compromise announced yesterday that satisfies the builders and users of the machines but guarantees challenges from the environmental community and members of Congress.
The proposal, which is expected to be signed March 24, reverses a decision by the Clinton administration that would have banned snowmobiles from the parks by next winter. The park service now plans to cap the number of machines allowed in Yellowstone daily at 950 and limit Grand Teton to 150. Yellowstone now averages 840 snowmobiles daily, but on holidays such as Presidents Day weekend, the total can soar to nearly 1,700.
Over the next two winters, park officials also will phase in quieter, less-polluting snowmobiles and require that all riders be led by trained guides.
"It strikes a balance between a phaseout of the snowmobile and the unlimited use we have today in the parks," said Steve Iobst, assistant superintendent at Grand Teton.
Snowmobiles are allowed in 40 national parks, preserves and monuments and banned in nearly 10 times that many. Yellowstone - the nation's oldest national park - and Grand Teton, just to the south in northwest Wyoming, have become symbols in the bigger fight over whether snowmobiles and jet skis have a place on public lands.
The snowmobile industry and user groups contend that there's room enough for everybody, especially with the advent of more advanced engines, and say opposing arguments are based on outdated information.
In November 2000, the park service moved to ban snowmobiles, triggering a lawsuit from manufacturers a month later. In June 2001, the Bush administration reached a settlement that required a new environmental study to take into account the new four-stroke engines that had just come on the market.
The $2.4 million study concluded that a ban was the "preferred environmental alternative." A ban also was favored by 80 percent of the more than 350,000 comments received from the public.
However, Yellowstone and Grand Teton officials chose the "agency preferred alternative" that includes an environmental monitoring program that could lead to a modification of the policy.
"Our decisions are fluid," said Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis. "We'll get new information and face lawsuits all the while we're continuing to look for better solutions."
Yesterday's decision outraged environmental groups and members of Congress led by Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Democrat Rush D. Holt of New Jersey. The two lawmakers promised to reintroduce a bill early next month with more than 100 co-sponsors to make the Clinton decision law.
Holt spent Presidents Day weekend in the park and called the blue haze generated by more than 600 snowmobiles at the West Yellowstone entrance station a "chemical assault" on rangers.
"Our bill is not about snowmobiles, it's about Yellowstone Park," said Holt, who was accompanied by two other congressmen. "There are hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails right outside the park. We don't have to poison Yellowstone."