Judge Silences Plan for More Yellowstone Snowmobiles

Chalk up an unexpected victory for the forces of tranquility.
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Chalk up an unexpected victory for the forces of tranquility.

Saying it "clearly elevates use over conservation of park resources and values," a district court judge on Monday scrapped a plan to allow more snowmobiles into Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

In a move that surprised most observers, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan blasted the so-called "winter use plan" (WUP) that would have allowed 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches a day to enter the park. And "blast" is the right word:

According to NPS's own data, the WUP will increase air pollution, exceed the use levels recommended by NPS biologists to protect wildlife, and cause major adverse impacts to the natural soundscape in Yellowstone. Despite this, NPS found that the plan's impacts are wholly "acceptable," and utterly fails to explain this incongruous conclusion. Put simply, the WUP provides "no rational connection between the facts found and the choice made."

"Surprise" is the right word, too. As our Melinda Burns wrote in May, most of the victories in the war between conservationists and recreationalists in the nation's parklands have been going to the fun-seekers. Addressing the Yellowstone case specifically, Burns quoted Patrick Wilson, an associate professor of natural resource policy at the University of Idaho who has studied the issue:

The ATV users have a lot of political clout. They make the argument that the public lands are not exclusively for ecological protection. It's far easier for the ATVers to hold on to what they have than it is for the environmental community to overcome that.

And as Wilson observed in the abstract:

The American system of government doesn't produce the outcomes that conservationists are asking for. Motorized recreation is going to ebb and flow, but it's here to stay. If you're interested in scaling back the use, it's going to be a lot harder than you think.

Now, the National Park Service must for a second time go back to the drawing board and re-craft the plan. We'll leave the final word in this ongoing kerfuffle to the Yellowstone Insider:

The irony: with snowmobile usage in general decline, both lawsuits are objecting to limits that are unlikely to be reached often. Even with a higher snowmobile limit, winter usage in Yellowstone has increased because of a rise in cross-country skiiers and snowshoers; with an actual average of 250 snowmobiles a day, the Park Service has rarely reached a limit of 540, never mind the 720 snowmobiles a day the pro-sled group is arguing for. So, like so many legal battles over Yellowstone, it's largely a symbolic fight.

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