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Here We Go Again: Salazar Cuts Yellowstone Snowmobile Numbers, Wyoming Sues Next Day

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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.”

Death Valley in Queue for FAA Air Tour Management Planning

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Death Valley has become the sixth National Park to initiate a formal Air Tour Management Plan process since the 2000 passage of legislation mandating such plans in National Parks with commercial helicopter or plane overflights.  It’s the first new plan to begin since 2004, when similar planning began at Lake Mead, Mt. Rushmore, and Badlands National Park, and two Hawaii national parks.  The process, under the auspices of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  has been shockingly slow; initial scoping (information gathering) for Environmental Assessments or EISs took place in 2004 and 2006 in these parks, but there have yet to be any draft EISs released.  Air tour management began at the Grand Canyon well before the 2000 legislation, and continues to move slowly toward final resolution.

At Death Valley, existing helicopter tours operators are hoping that the new process will not limit their activities, which have so far seemed to not cause significant visitor conflicts.  Death Valley also is home to a small airport at which up to 30 private planes land each day, mostly day trippers from Las Vegas or southern California.  The decision to proceed with an ATMP was made at a late June meeting of the National Parks Overflight Advisory Group (NPOAG) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). The ARC is hoping to expedite the process at Death Valley by having all stakeholders more directly involved from the beginning, in hopes of demonstrating a process that can complete ATMPs in a more timely fashion at other parks in the future.  Full minutes of that meeting are available here.

See FAA ATMP website

Crater Lake Eyed for Helicopter Tours

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UPDATE 3/25/10: The Senate has passed legislation allowing the NPS to ban helicopter tours at Crater Lake without going through a lengthy inter-agency process with the FAA.  The measure still needs to be approved by a House-Senate conference committee.

A request from an air tour operator to begin helicopter flights in Crater Lake National Park has stirred considerable local opposition.  The Oregonian editorialized against the proposal, saying that the rim road already provides suitable access to those who can’t hike far.  The same rim road is used by Leading Edge Aviation in its pitch to allow the flights, as they claim that their ‘copters will not cause any more noise impact than RVs in the summer or snowmobiles in the winter cruising the rim.  Others are skeptical that the choppers are really that quiet. Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild, says, “It’s embarrassing enough that we have only one national park and so little protected wilderness in Oregon. Desecrating the experience at Crater Lake with helicopters buzzing around would be tragic.” Planned air tours range include a half-hour flight that just passes by the north rim and two longer options that skirt other Park landmarks, including Grouse Hill and The Pinnacles. See local press coverage here, and Leading Edge’s tour proposal here.

Yellowstone Opens for Winter Season As Judges Duel for Jurisdiction

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The Bush administration’s 8-years of Yellowstone winter use meddling continues to the bitter end: after immediately overturning the Clinton-era phase-out of snowmobiles in the Park during the winter of 2001, it has, in its final month in office, issued a rule to maintain a 720 snowmobiles/day limit, after a year in which the Park Service proposed a long-term cap of 540, then lowered its proposal to 318 when a DC Federal Court tossed its plan as not protective enough.  I took my eye off this ball for a couple months, and it ricocheted around the country, through two Federal District Courts (just as the initial Bush rule did in the middle of this eight years of chaos) and through the businesses and bar-rooms of West Yellowstone, WY, continuing to boggle the journalistic mind to cull the madness into a readable narrative.  The bottom line for this winter appears to be a “limit” of 720 machines, which, if the past few years are any indication, is more than will want to enter the Park (thanks to rules that require all snowmobiles to be part of guided tours).  Read our best attempt at a summary below the fold, or see AEI’s Special Report: Yellowstone Winter Use for ten years of gorey details. Read the rest of this entry »

Park Service Proposes First Real Limits on Snowmobiles at Yellowstone Since Guided Tours Provision

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Responding to a September Federal Court ruling that tossed the 3rd Yellowstone Winter Use Plan on the cusp of a new winter season, Park managers have released a proposed interim plan that will, for the first time since the original Clinton-era plan, reduce the actual numbers of snow machines in the Park on most of the busy winter holidays and weekends. Earlier plans had capped snowmobiles at 720, then more recently, 540 per day; the interim proposal will allow 318 per day. Last winter, an average of 290 snowmobiles entered the park each day, but on many weekends and other peak days, numbers reached 400-500, with the single highest day seeing 557. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Read the rest of this entry »