Judge strikes down snowmobile plan

Park Service is ordered to revive rules dropped by Bush administration

December 17, 2003|By Julie Cart | Julie Cart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

On the eve of the opening of snowmobile season at Yellowstone National Park, a federal judge ordered the National Park Service yesterday to scrap a Bush administration plan to expand snowmobile use in the park and reimpose a Clinton-era policy phasing out the machines.

The ruling, in a lawsuit brought by a number of environmental groups, also affects neighboring Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, which connects the two parks in northwest Wyoming.

The plaintiffs, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, argued that the Park Service had ignored its own research that shows that prohibiting snowmobiles would be the best way to protect the parks' resources.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan concurred, ruling that the Bush administration's overturning of the ban, which had never taken effect, was "arbitrary and capricious" and ran contrary to the Park Service's own scientific analysis of the effects on air quality and wildlife.

Sullivan wrote that the rationale offered for the policy change was "weak at best" and said that "the decision to overturn the ban was completely political driven and result oriented."

The ruling, made only 12 hours before the start of the two parks' winter season, calls for a 50 percent reduction in snowmobiles this winter and a total ban for the 2004-2005 season. Snow coaches, the park's mass transit alternative to snowmobiles, will become the primary way for visitors to tour Yellowstone in winter.

Under the ruling, 490 snowmobiles per day will be able enter Yellowstone this winter and 50 per day in Grand Teton.

Longtime critics of snowmobiling in the parks applauded the ruling. Denis Galvin, deputy director of the Park Service under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and during the first year of the current administration, said the ruling reflected common sense.

"Having been personally involved during the Clinton administration, I feel the decision to ban was based on good scientific reasoning," he said. "If you draw back for the red hot politics of this, this is a transportation planning problem. We are at the place in Yellowstone that the snowmobile is screwing up the experience."

Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who co-sponsored the 2003 Yellowstone Preservation Act, which has not passed, said the ruling did what the administration should have done.

"It is a sad commentary on this administration's environmental record that the courts have had to intervene to make sure that the Department of Interior is fulfilling its mission to protect our national lands," he said. "It should never have come to this."

The administration defended its policy, saying even though the new rule would have allowed about 35 percent more machines into the park than historical averages, the snowmobiles would be required to have cleaner and quieter engines.

The Park Service called the administration plan a balance of its duty to protect the park and its responsibility to allow the public to visit and enjoy it.

Sullivan cited the Park Service's own findings that even if new technology were used, the damage to the health of visitors, wildlife and park employees would be too great.

The judge acknowledged that the 11th-hour decision might create a hardship on snowmobile concessionaires and enthusiasts. But in a sharply worded exchange in court on Monday, he chided the Park Service for releasing its final rule several weeks late.

"The court did not create this problem," Sullivan said. "The federal government did."

Snowmobiling has been the most popular method of touring Yellowstone in the winter. Although visitors also explore on skis and snowshoes and in park-operated snow coaches, three of four winter visitors enter the park on snowmobiles.

Nevertheless, public opinion has run overwhelmingly in favor of a ban in three separate public comment periods during he past two years. The most recent comments sought by the National Park Service this fall showed people in support of a ban by a 99-1 margin.

While officials in Montana, which borders the park to the north and northwest, testified that the state's tourist-based economy would suffer under a ban, Sullivan responded that such a claim was not supported. A Park Service study concluded that the ban would have a "negligible" effect on the five counties bordering the park.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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