Judge Upholds Yellowstone Snowmobile Compromise

Published January 1, 2006

Snowmobiles are returning to the Yellowstone and Grant Teton national parks this winter following an October 14 decision by Judge Clarence Brimmer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming. Brimmer upheld a plan by the Bush administration to allow snowmobiles in the parks.

The plan includes restrictions strongly opposed by many local residents. The regulations place a cap on the number of snowmobilers who can be in the parks at any one time and require that commercial guides accompany those who go in.

Rules a Compromise

Although the current rules are more restrictive than in years past, they are more permissive than rules proposed by the Clinton administration, under which snowmobiling would have been banned entirely.

Snowmobilers had been allowed in the two parks for 40 years. Snowmobiling sustains the region’s winter economy and is an established recreational outlet during snowbound winter months. In a typical year, three-fourths of the winter visitors to Yellowstone used snowmobiles. In some parts of the parks, access during winter can be gained only by snowmobile.

The Clinton White House had concluded snowmobiles produced too much air and noise pollution in the parks and disrupted wildlife. The administration claimed the only way to control those problems was to implement a total ban on snowmobiling in the parks.

Under a temporary deal negotiated by the Bush administration, snowmobiles are allowed in the parks subject to the new restrictions. Only 720 snowmobiles will be allowed to enter Yellowstone per day, and the snowmobilers must have guides. The rules allow 140 snowmobiles to enter Grand Teton and to travel on the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, which connects the two parks.

Judge Upholds Restrictions

The Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association (WLRA) challenged the deal in court, hoping to have the new restrictions eliminated. Brimmer rejected the group’s arguments, saying the WLRA failed to show the National Park Service (NPS) did not offer a “reasoned explanation” for restricting snowmobile access.

Explained Brimmer, “We all must keep in mind that the NPS is the expert in this area and, consequently, is entitled to a great amount of deference when making such decisions. … It is clear to this Court that the 2004 Temporary Rule, while not perfect in any sense, seems to be the best compromise currently available.”

Brimmer considered reasonable the NPS analysis that found allowing more than 720 snowmobiles per day would be detrimental to Yellowstone. “Surely, no one can argue that a decrease in irresponsible drivers does not reduce the impact on wildlife in the Parks,” Brimmer wrote.

Nevertheless, Brimmer did sympathize with snowmobilers, expressing hope that further NPS research into the issue would eventually allow some snowmobile access without guides. Wrote Brimmer, “The Court also hopes the ultimate conclusion reached in the research of this issue allows many visitors to visit the park on an unguided basis.”

Mandatory Guides Challenged

Jack Welch, president of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an organization of outdoor recreationists promoting safe, responsible, and environmentally conscious use of public lands, said most local residents oppose the new restrictions. “Our biggest problem is that everyone has to be guided in Yellowstone proper,” said Welch.

That requirement, Welch said, will cost each snowmobiler $20 to $30 per day even if they have been using the parks for years and know their way around better than the guides do.

Nevertheless, Welch said his organization will not further challenge the restrictions this year.

Bipartisan Support for Snowmobilers

The opposition to the snowmobiling restrictions is unmistakably bipartisan. Local Democrats as well as Republicans bristle at the federal rules and rulings, which they see as telling Westerners that public lands are not really public. Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank, a Democrat, was one of the plaintiffs in an earlier suit filed against the original Clinton ban.

Crank, according to the October 19 Billings Gazette, expressed disappointment in Brimmer’s ruling and indicated his office will not yet concede the permanency of the restrictions.

“There’s no reason why adults can’t drive their snowmobiles in Yellowstone without having a commercial guide,” Crank said.

Crank also said, however, that he is pleased Brimmer would retain jurisdiction over the snowmobiling issue in future disputes. That gives snowmobile supporters hope for a more favorable ruling in the future. Brimmer last year blocked a Washington, DC judge’s complete snowmobile ban for Yellowstone.

“To wait one more year is OK,” Lynn Birleffi, executive director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association, told the Associated Press. “We had hoped to get some relief for unguided tours, but we’re certainly willing to go through this process.”

Clark Collins, founder and executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, said staying on the offensive is the only way to retain snowmobiling rights in national parks. “The groups trying to eliminate snowmobiling in Yellowstone aren’t willing to share our public lands with snowmobiles and will not rest until we are shut out of every area of scenic recreational value,” Collins said.

Kerry Jackson ([email protected]) is a freelance writer.

For more information …

For more information on snowmobiling in Yellowstone and other national parks, see “Federal Judge Bans Snowmobiles in from Yellowstone,” Environment & Climate News, February 2004, available online at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=14271 and “Wyoming Court Rejects Yellowstone Snowmobile Ban,” Environment & Climate News, March 2004, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=14546.