It’s deja vu all over again over again over again, as Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar stepped up as the third Administration to attempt the now seemingly absurd task of setting permanent rules governing the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. Both the Clinton and Bush plans ended up with dueling Federal District Court rulings in Wyoming (where relatively snowmobile-friendly decisions tend to result), and DC (where results tend to hew more toward the analysis done by the Park Service, recommending limits). This time, it took only one day for the State of Wyoming to dash into Judge Clarence Brimmer’s District Court and urge the new plan to be set aside.
The Obama administration has proposed a temporary rule for snowmobile management over the coming two winters, while yet another Environmental Impact Statement is developed. Their proposal matches the recommendation made in the Park Service’s last EIS, to allow 318 snowmobiles a day into the Park. The Bush administration had ignored this recommendation, and in November 2008 instead proposed a rule allowing 540 per day; the DC court said that the choice was not sufficiently backed up by the EIS, and ordered the Park to come up with a new plan. When the Park proposed the 318 number for last winter, the Wyoming court issued a ruling that spurred differing interpretations; the Park Service (likely sensing the likelihood of a judicial logjam blocking the entire snowmobile season), decided that the Wyoming ruling mandated them to revert to an expired 2004 Final Rule that allowed 720 machines, though environmental organizations held that the Judge had made no such firm requirement. In any case, Wyoming is now aiming to clarify that ruling, by asking Judge Brimmer to affirm their interpretation that his 2008 ruling requires the Park Service to revert to the 2004 rule until a new EIS is completed. As usual, local news outlets like the Jackson Hole Daily have some of the most thorough coverage.
A reality check: last year, the average number of snowmobiles entering Yellowstone was only 205, while in the previous winter the average was 295. Only a few peak days would trigger the new limit; last year’s top usage day was December 29, when 426 machines entered the Park. Ever since the establishment of the “guided-tour-only” requirement (a part of the first Bush proposal, meant to overturn the Clinton-era phase-out of snowmobiles), total snowmobile use in Yellowstone has declined dramatically, from a previous average of 840 machines per day during the Clinton years, with peak weekend totals of 1600-2000. Meanwhile, snowcoach ridership has nearly doubled. Still, sound monitoring has found that vehicles were audible over half the day in many popular areas, including at Old Faithful 68% of the time, and 59% of the time at Madison Junction. It’s not clear yet whether the Obama team will attempt a brand-new EIS, as the Bush team did, or opt for a somewhat faster Revised EIS process; it is unlikely that much new information will be available, beyond annual noise monitoring data. Tim Stevens, Northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said that two years is too long for the interim plan. “The Park Service has been working on this for over 10 years,” he said. “They’ve got all the information that they need … to complete this in one year.”