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Third Yellowstone Snowmobile Plan Tossed by Federal Court

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The eternal cycle of Yellowstone Winter Use Plans looks to continue for at least one more round, as the third “final” National Park Service rule governing snowmobile access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks has been tossed out by a Federal District Court after challenges form a consortium of environmental organizations.  DC-based judge Emmet Sullivan found that the NPS plan that would allow 540 snowmobiles to enter the parks each day was “arbitrary and capricious.” Sullivan expressed three key objections: the current average use of 263 snowmobiles is already exceeding the noise standards set by the Park Service (with the additional snowmobiles likely to further increase the area in which snowmobiles are audible for over half the day from 21 square miles to 63 square miles); NPS “utterly failed to explain why none of the seven alternatives would constitute impairment or unacceptable impacts” (despite NPS figures that suggest an increase in exhaust gasses and particulates of 18-100%); and NPS “failed to provide a rational explanation for the source of the 540 snowmobile limit.” The case turned on how to interpret the Organic Act, a 1916 law that established the Park Service

and charged it with a primary task to “conserve park resources and values.” The Act allows impacts if they do not impair park resources; the NPS was arguing that the Act only prohibits “unacceptable impacts;” the Judge noted that the Act requires a stricter standard, “to ‘provide for the enjoyment’ of the parks’ resources and values in ‘such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations’…This is not blanket permission to have fun in the parks in any way the NPS sees fit,” concluded Sullivan. “There have been four studies and $10 million spent, and every study shows the best way to get people in the park and protect it is through snow coach access, not snowmobiles,” said Chris Mehl, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont., one of the parties to the lawsuit. “This upholds the promise and possibility of Yellowstone.” Jack Welch of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized use advocacy group, called the decision “bizarre and far reaching” and said Sullivan’s ruling could severely limit public access in national parks across the country. While the ruling does leave some uncertainties for the 2008-09 winter, the Park Service has the power to enact a temporary winter-use plan. “We’re planning to be open to visitors for the winter season beginning December 15 as scheduled,” noted NPS spokesman Al Nash. Under interim rules in force for the past three winters, 720 snowmobiles were allowed to enter the park each day, though actual use was far less, primarily due to a requirement that all snowmobiles be part of guided tours. A new interim rule will likely be issued to govern this winter’s activities, using either the 720 or 540-machine limit. Rep. Colin Simpson of Cody noted that it’s possible the Monday ruling “reverts back to the 2000 (Clinton-era) Record of Decision that phased out snowmobiles” in the park, adding that “I thought the original Record of Decision was arbitrary and capricious.” On the same day that Sullivan threw out the plan, a very different challenge to the Rule was receiving a hearing in a Wyoming Court: the State of Wyoming is arguing for a return of the 720-machine limit, and for some of those riders to be free to ride on their own, without guides. Federal District Judge Clarence Brimmer, who submitted his resignation two years ago but is still awaiting a replacement, ruled against a similar challenge mounted in 2006 when the guides-only rule was first instigated. These same two judges have presided over dueling cases since early in the Bush administration; Brimmer ruled that the Clinton-era planned phase-out of snowmobiles (Winter Use Plan 1) was illegal, while Sullivan ruled that the Bush plan (Winter Use Plan 2) was also invalid. That impasse led to the current Winter Use Plan 3, now also back up in the air.  Sources: New York Times, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Casper Star-Tribune, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Cody Enterprise, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Jackson Hole News and Guide, 9/16/08[READ ARTICLE] Kansas City Infozine, 9/16/08 [READ ARTICLE] Washington Post, 9/15/08[READ ARTICLE] 
[See AEI Special Report: Yellowstone Winter Use]

 

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