Wyoming Court Rejects Yellowstone Snowmobile Ban

Published March 1, 2004

The latest volley in an ongoing battle over snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park was launched on February 10, when U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Wyoming blocked a snowmobile ban issued in December by a federal district judge in Washington DC.

“Wyoming and ISMA [International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association] Plaintiffs demonstrated irreparable harm if the injunction does not issue,” Brimmer concluded. “This harm includes the significant financial loss that will be sustained by businesses and concessionaires, the loss of goodwill, and the potential that some businesses may go bankrupt if the injunction is not issued. These are losses that cannot be compensated if Wyoming and ISMA Plaintiffs prevail on the merits of the case.”

Brimmer issued a temporary injunction that prevents the National Park Service (NPS) from enforcing a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. He further required NPS to issue temporary rules for the 2004 season “that will be fair and equitable to snowmobile owners and users, to the business community, and to the environmental interests, … and to all other interests public and private, of which the NPS is aware.”

“This is a great victory for all in the snowmobile community who have fought at every step of the process for access at Yellowstone,” said Jack Welch, president of the Blue Ribbon Coalition. “We continue to believe the Park Service was correct in allowing regulated snowmobile access to these special destinations, and this decision gives us some hope that our access to Yellowstone Park will be preserved.”

Dueling Decisions

Four years ago, Brimmer was assigned to decide a legal challenge against a Clinton administration proposal to ban snowmobiles in the two national parks. Local citizens and recreationists pointed out that access to the snowbound parks during the winter months was virtually impossible without snowmobiles, and that a ban on snowmobiles would devastate local economies.

The lawsuit became moot, however, after the newly elected Bush administration agreed to a settlement that permitted a limited number of snowmobiles to continue using the parks in the winter. Key to the Bush administration’s decision was a mandate that snowmobiles use the best available technology to reduce air and noise pollution.

On December 16, 2003, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, DC outraged local citizens by negating the Bush plan and banning snowmobiles from the parks for the first time in history. Sullivan justified his decision by asserting NPS officials did not follow procedural rules by failing to adequately explain why the agency reversed the proposed Clinton administration rule.

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

Not Based on Sound Science

In reviewing and reversing Sullivan’s decision, Brimmer ruled, among other things, “that the record established a prejudged political conclusion to ban snowmobiles in the Parks. … The prejudged political conclusion … and the lack of a hard look at the environmental impacts of snowcoaches in the Parks, leads to a substantial likelihood [that the snowmobile ban] could be ruled as arbitrary and capricious after a full review of the record.”

Dr. Lori Fussell, an environmental engineer who has been studying snowmobile emissions for more than 10 years, agreed. In a recent television interview, she noted, “I am concerned that the [December] decision to phase out snowmobiles was based on a value judgment rather than a scientifically based need to eliminate snowmobiles to prevent environmental degradation to Yellowstone National Park.

“The technology exists to reduce snowmobile emissions to levels that would allow them to operate in Yellowstone National Park in limited numbers without causing degradation of park resources or significant human exposure to pollution,” continued Fussell, who is cofounder of the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge. “Therefore, I believe that opponents of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park are either misinformed or have issues with snowmobiles other than the pollution levels.”

“Snowmobiles account for less than 4 percent of annual vehicular traffic in the Park,” noted the ISMA. “ISMA snowmobile use of groomed portions of Yellowstone National Park’s road system began 40 years ago. The snowmobiles are restricted to the same road system used in the spring, summer, and fall by more than 1.5 million automobiles, buses, SUVs, trucks, recreational vehicles, and motorcycles.”

Snowmobile emissions account for only a small fraction of mobile-source emissions in the national parks, reported the ISMA, which calculates summer recreational vehicles (RVs) emit more than eight times more NOx than snowmobiles and newer-technology “snowcoaches.” Snowmobiles and snowcoaches account for less than 2 percent of all NOx emissions from vehicles in the Parks, the ISMA reported, and less than 6 percent of particulate matter emissions from mobile sources.

“If Park resources are being impaired by vehicle emissions,” concluded the ISMA, “the culprit is not snowmobiles.”

Legal Challenges Ahead

“The people that are suffering under the move toward banning snowmobiles are the small-business owners in and around the parks,” Gov. Dave Freudenthal said in a statement. “They relied upon one rule only to find out the day before this season opened that they would be forced to operate under a much stricter rule, which has already cost the state dearly in terms of impacts on its tourism industry.”

Brimmer’s ruling, which specified only that NPS develop rules for the 2004 snowmobile season, leaves unaddressed the long-term status of snowmobiles in the National Parks. But the U.S. Department of Justice said on February 11 the administration would not challenge Brimmer’s decision. And Brimmer himself has made clear his position that local authorities ought to decide such matters.

“I don’t see any reason why a judge 2,000 miles from here ought to be deciding things that affect the people of Wyoming,” said Brimmer during hearings regarding the resuscitated snowmobile case.

The sharpest exchange during the hearings occurred when Doug Honnold, an attorney for Earthjustice representing several environmental groups in the case, argued snowmobile proponents were venue-shopping by seeking Brimmer’s intervention rather than arguing in front of Sullivan. “Kind of like you folks did,” responded Brimmer. “You did an end run to Washington.”

“We will enjoy this new chapter in the Yellowstone saga, but realize it may not be the last and will renew our efforts to maintain reasonable access to the Parks,” noted the Blue Ribbon Coalition’s Welch.

“We support the use of cleaner, quieter machines in the park, in reasonable numbers, and Brimmer made a wise decision,” said Bill Dart, the Coalition’s public lands director.

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