Bush Snowmobile Plan for Yellowstone National Park Struck Down

WASHINGTON, DC, September 15, 2008 (ENS) - The Bush administration's authorization of increased snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park violates the fundamental legal responsibility of the National Park Service to protect the clean air, wildlife, and natural quiet of national parks for the benefit of all visitors, a federal court ruled today.

The administration authorized increased snowmobile use despite scientific conclusions by the National Park Service that the decision would multiply noise and unhealthy exhaust, which disrupt the experiences of visitors, and traffic that harms Yellowstone's wildlife, including bison.

Judge Emmett Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today invalidated the Bush decision in a case brought by six conservation groups that together represent more than two million members.

The groups sued the Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, National Park Service Director Mary Bomar and Mike Snyder, director of the Intermountain Region of the National Park Service over their new Winter Use Plan that allows 540 recreational snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches to enter Yellowstone every day.

The plaintiff groups claimed the Bush adminstration's decision violated numerous laws, including the National Park Service Organic Act.

In his ruling, Judge Sullivan wrote, "The Organic Act clearly states that the fundamental purpose of the national park system is to conserve park resources and values."

"NPS fails to explain how increasing snowmobile usage over current conditions, where adaptive management thresholds are already being exceeded, complies with the conservation mandate of the Organic Act," the judge wrote, adding that, "NPS also fails to provide a rational explanation for the source of the 540 snowmobile limit."

According to the National Park Service's own data, the Winter Use Plan "will increase air pollution, exceed the use levels recommended by NPS biologists to protect wildlife, and cause major adverse impacts to the natural soundscapes in Yellowstone. Despite this, NPS found that the plan's impacts are wholly 'acceptable,' and utterly fails to explain this incongruous conclusion," Judge Sullivan concluded.

The judge directed that the National Park Service must substitute a plan that ensures all visitors can safely experience the park, and uphold laws that require stronger protection of Yellowstone's air quality, wildlife, and natural sounds.

"Beyond Yellowstone, the court's ruling reaffirms that a cornerstone purpose of our national parks is to provide opportunities to enjoy nature and these opportunities must not be compromised, particularly when protective alternatives are readily available," said Bob Rosenbaum, attorney with Arnold & Porter, a law firm that represented the plaintiffs in Washington, DC.

"I'm thrilled that this ruling will restore Yellowstone's profound winter quiet," said Tom Murphy of Livingston, Montana, a Yellowstone guide and photographer since 1979 and author of three books about the Park.

"Yellowstone's values have been diminished by snowmobiles," said Murphy. "There's no excuse for it when visitors are increasingly choosing modern snowcoaches that are less expensive and much less disruptive of the park and other visitors' enjoyment."

"This is an important victory for Yellowstone and all of America's national parks," said Sean Helle, an attorney in Bozeman, Montana with Earthjustice who represented the plaintiff groups. "Yellowstone is an embodiment of one of America's great ideas - that our cherished lands must be conserved and protected. The court's opinion reaffirms this principle."

The plaintiff groups are: the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the Winter Wildlands Alliance.

They cited research conducted by the National Park Service showing that even with an average of 263 snowmobiles per day during the past five winters, snowmobile impacts have exceeded Yellowstone's noise thresholds.

"This ruling reaffirms the idea at the heart of our National Park System - that the duty of Yellowstone's managers is to preserve the park for the sake of all visitors, and to place the highest value on protection of Yellowstone's unique natural treasures," said Tim Stevens, senior Yellowstone Program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Park service research showed that the 540 snowmobiles a day authorized by the administration would double the current snowmobile use and triple the area in Yellowstone where visitors would hear motorized noise for half or more of the visiting day.

More snowmobiles would degrade Yellowstone's air quality with snowmobile exhaust, which contains carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulates, benzene and formaldehyde, park service researchers found.

And the park service found that more animals would be pushed out of their preferred habitat, impacting their health and increasing mortality.

"This ruling will ensure that visitors are not disappointed by air and noise pollution when they make the one winter trip to Yellowstone of their lives," said Amy McNamara, National Parks Program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

"We take our hats off to the tour businesses that didn't wait for this ruling," she said. "Their increasing investments in modern snowcoaches are already making it possible for winter visitors to access and enjoy Yellowstone while protecting it."

The 670 member Coalition of National Park Service Retirees today welcomed Judge Sullivan's ruling. "This decision reaffirms the most essential value of our national parks - that these are among the most special places in our country where Americans are supposed to be able to enjoy the nation's cleanest air, undisturbed sounds and quiet of nature, and wildlife living as free as possible from the pressures of our modern society," said Bill Wade, executive council chair of the coalition.

He said, "The court's ruling strongly echoes the caution submitted to this administration by every living former director of the National Park Service - that Yellowstone's managers have a fundamental responsibility to provide stewardship on behalf of all visitors and future generations, rather than catering to special interests in a manner that damages Yellowstone's resources and erodes the unique values and qualities of our oldest national park."

To read Judge Sullivan's ruling, click here.

{Photo: A snowmobile tour in Yellowstone National Park (Photo courtesy National Park Service)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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