Federal Judge Bans Snowmobiles from Yellowstone

Published February 1, 2004

A federal district judge in Washington DC has thrown out a National Park Service (NPS) rule and ordered a permanent ban on snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The December 16 ruling–which outraged locals and DC policy experts alike–marks the first time snowmobiles have been banned from the national parks.

“The decision to ban the public’s use of Yellowstone by snowmobiles in the winter is another lesson in civics,” said R.J. Smith, senior environmental fellow and adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “It puts the lie to the old saw that these are ‘your’ parks.

“The public lands have never belonged to the public,” Smith explained to Environment & Climate News. “They belong to the state, which today means they belong to the Greens inside and outside of the government.”

Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled National Park Service officials failed to adequately explain why the agency reversed a proposed Clinton administration rule intended to ban snowmobiles from the parks.

Clinton Ban Controversial

The Clinton rule itself was highly controversial, as it sought to reverse a 40-year history of snowmobile recreation in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. The Clinton administration argued air and noise pollution from snowmobiles was severe and could not be adequately addressed by any means other than a total ban.

With 75 percent of winter visitors to Yellowstone utilizing snowmobiles, the Attorney General of Wyoming, a Democrat, and citizens groups such as the Blue Ribbon Coalition filed suit against implementation of the Clinton rule.

A ban on snowmobiles would create a virtual ban on public access to the park during winter months and would devastate local economies, argued the plaintiffs. However, the suit was dropped after the Bush administration announced it would not implement the Clinton rule and would instead seek a balanced approach that would mandate the use of the best available technology to reduce air and noise pollution while still allowing limited snowmobile access.

“The prospect of new technology [to address pollution] is not new,” argued Sullivan in his written opinion. Because the Clinton administration must have been aware that technological developments might ameliorate pollution, argued Sullivan, the Bush National Park Service must come up with sound reasons other than the implementation of technological innovation for reversing the snowmobile ban. “The agency is under obligation to explain its 180-degree reversal,” Smith asserted. “NPS has not met this obligation.”

Interior Secretary Gale Norton disagreed that today’s pollution-abatement technology was available for consideration by the Clinton administration. “Over the past three years, snowmobile manufacturers have developed improved technologies that dramatically reduce air and noise emissions,” said Norton.

Under the Bush administration’s proposed rule, only 950 snowmobiles would be allowed in Yellowstone on any given day, as opposed to roughly 1,700 snowmobiles that have typically entered the park during busy days. Additionally, all snowmobiles in the parks would have been required by 2005 to achieve a 70 percent reduction in carbon monoxide emissions and a 90 percent reduction in hydrocarbon emissions.

Legal Fight Continues

Sullivan’s decision, issued just hours before Yellowstone was scheduled to open for the winter season, reignited the controversy and refueled the legal battles that had been put on hold with non-implementation of the Clinton rule.

The State of Wyoming, Blue Ribbon Coalition, and International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA) immediately filed motions seeking reconsideration of Sullivan’s decision. Moreover, Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank (D) and the Blue Ribbon Coalition indicated they were likely to reopen their earlier suits against the Clinton rule.

“Federal judges continue to abuse their authority by legislating from the bench,” said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-California). “This judge in particular seems to have a penchant for locking out the public and refuses to apply common sense in interpreting the spirit and intent of the law.”

While Sullivan, who has frequently ruled against the Bush administration on environmental issues, was vested with authority to decide the legitimacy of the Bush rule, the battle is not over. The case is certain to be appealed to the federal appellate court in Washington, DC. Moreover, the suit previously filed against the Clinton rule is under the jurisdiction of a federal district judge in Wyoming, who in the summer of 2003 struck down the Clinton administration’s ban on building new roads in national forests.

“The fight’s not over,” vowed Bill Dart, public lands director for the Blue Ribbon Coalition. “We’re back to management by litigation, unfortunately,” Dart observed.

In addition to throwing out the National Park Service’s snowmobile plan for Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Sullivan ordered the NPS to respond to a petition by the Bluewater Network seeking to ban snowmobiles in all national parks, national recreation areas, and national monuments.

Local Outrage

“If environmental extremists continue to have their way,” responded Pombo, “people will only be looking at Yellowstone through a plate glass window.”

J. Bishop Grewell, a research associate at Bozeman, Montana-based PERC, echoed Pombo’s concern and warned of the growing politicization of Yellowstone access.

“A limited number of outfitters are allowed special dispositions to lead people into the park on snowmobile and horseback,” Grewell explained to Environment & Climate News, “granting them one of the sweetest monopolies around. The rich recreationists who can afford the outfitter-style vacation benefit as well, while the poor–many of whom spent a significant portion of their income purchasing snowmobiles or taking out loans to purchase the vehicles as their main recreational outlet–are left at home.”

Grewell is the author of a forthcoming policy series from PERC on recreation fees and the hard questions that must be asked before such fees are implemented. If policymakers are not careful, Grewell warned, “The parks return to playgrounds for the rich–something that goes against the mission of the Park Service to provide access for everyone.”

Throughout the Yellowstone region, there was bipartisan outrage at Sullivan’s decision.

Sullivan’s decision “will have a severe impact on the economy of our gateway communities,” said Montana Senator Conrad Burns (R), in support of the Democratic Attorney General’s decision to contest the ruling. “There is a way to manage for multiple uses of Yellowstone, and this decision doesn’t recognize that reality.”

The new rule is “going to be devastating to our economy, no doubt about it,” agreed West Yellowstone Mayor Jerry Johnson.

“The Town Council [is] alarmed” about the effect of the snowmobile ban on the town economy, reported the Bozeman, Montana, Daily Chronicle.

“It will cause some bankruptcies, there is no debate,” added ISMA President Ed Klim. “There’s going to be a few families that lose their homes in West Yellowstone.”

“Because West Yellowstone is the winter gateway to the park, the coming loss of most of the winter visitation to the town may well spell its death,” agreed CEI’s Smith. “This decision represents another nail in the coffin of rural America and its communities, farms, ranches, and homes across the West.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].