A last-minute regulation published today by the Bush administration opens Yellowstone National Park, the country's most famous sanctuary for wildlife, to twice as many snowmobiles as recommended just last month by National Park Service scientists and park managers. The Bush rule, allowing up to 720 snowmobiles a day into the park, will generate significantly more harm from snowmobiles than a federal court rejected in September as unlawful.
A coalition of non-profit conservation organizations that advocates for lawful and science-based stewardship of Yellowstone today filed a challenge to the new regulation. The groups, represented by Earthjustice, asked the same federal court that only three months ago rejected a lesser number of snowmobiles in Yellowstone to require the National Park Service to uphold the fundamental purpose of the national park system "to conserve park resources and values."
Because Yellowstone's winter season is due to open next week with many visitors' plans already in place, the organizations have elected to seek a court order requiring the National Park Service to revise its winter use policy after this season but in time to ensure protection of the park's resource and values the following winter.
Following is background about the issue and a joint statement issued today by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Winter Wildlands Alliance.
- On September 15, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the National Park Service's winter use plan authorizing up to 540 snowmobiles per day failed to protect Yellowstone National Park's air quality, natural soundscapes and wildlife as required by law. The court ruled that the plan "clearly elevates use over conservation of park resources and values and fails to articulate why the plan's 'major adverse impacts' are 'necessary and appropriate to fulfill the purposes of the park.'"
- On November 5, 2008, the National Park Service responded with a proposed plan to allow 318 snowmobiles per day as a temporary measure while the agency works to comply with the D.C. court's order. Conservation groups expressed support for the plan as an interim measure.
- Today, the Bush administration published a rule authorizing up to 720 snowmobiles per day, allowing even greater harm to Yellowstone's air, quiet and wildlife than the plan invalidated by the D.C. court and permitting a level of snowmobile use that the National Park Service specifically rejected last month after concluding based on scientific studies that it would result in "major adverse impacts" to Yellowstone.
- The administration has asserted that the U.S. District Court in Wyoming required the National Park Service to reinstate the rule allowing 720 snowmobiles per day, but in actuality the Wyoming court left the National Park Service with discretion to promulgate a lawful rule protective of park resources.
- Four separate environmental studies by the National Park Service have determined that the most effective means of protecting Yellowstone's air quality, quiet, and wildlife -- while also providing visitors motorized oversnow access to the park's interior -- combines expansion of snowcoach access with an end to park snowmobiling. The studies determined that allowing continued snowmobile use, even with additional restrictions, would result in significantly greater impacts to the park's resources. The studies have cost taxpayers over $10 million.
- The National Park Service has analyzed well over half a million public comments in the course of the four studies, more than the agency has received on any issue since its establishment in 1916. Over 80 percent have favored expanding snowcoach access and ending park snowmobiling.
Joint statement of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Winter Wildlands Alliance:
"The action taken by the Bush administration today is squarely at odds with the stronger stewardship of Yellowstone that the National Park Service recommended just last month in order to begin ensuring that winter visitors can enjoy cleaner, healthier and more natural conditions. The administration has chosen to allow levels of air pollution, noise and harassment of wildlife which its own scientists and park managers have clearly stated are readily avoidable in our country's first national park. It is disheartening, but hardly surprising at this point, to see this administration, in its final six weeks in office, blatantly contradicting the scientific findings and public comment that it came into office saying should be paramount in managing Yellowstone. We hope this will be the last time that politics trumps public will, scientific findings, and the law in providing winter enjoyment and protection of Yellowstone National Park."