|Parks sled debate revs up -
Greens say Park Service ignores science while snowmobilers want more
access, no guides.
By Cory Hatch, Environmental Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
P.O. Box 7445
Jackson, Wyoming 83002
To submit a Letter to the Editor: email@example.com
Conservation groups say a new National Park Service plan for snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks ignores science, but recreation groups counter that the proposal is too restrictive.
Park officials released the draft plan on Monday for a technical review by state and county officials in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service. The Park Service would then incorporate comments from these agencies before opening the draft up for public comment in March 2007.
The draft's "preferred alternative" would allow a maximum of 720 snowmobiles in Yellowstone per day. All snowmobilers would use a guide and the machines would be equipped with the "best available technology," namely four-stroke engines that are considered quieter and less polluting than traditional two-stroke machines.
In Teton park, up to 140 snowmobiles would be allowed at any one time. While guides would not be required, snowmobile travel would be restricted to certain locations and the best available technology is required under most circumstances.
One change is that Yellowstone would close Sylvan Pass from Cody to through travel because of safety concerns. The proposal would also require the best available technology for snowcoaches.
The recently released preferred alternative is one of several proposals. Other alternatives include snowcoach-only access, closing Yellowstone to motorized oversnow winter travel and increasing snowmobile opportunities in the park. A final plan is expected to be issued in time for the 2007-08 winter season.
Wilderness Society spokesman Chris Mehl said the Park Service is ignoring three studies and $11 million worth of air quality and pollution data by suggesting the continued use of snowmobiles in the park.
"This preferred alternative bucks the Park Service's own experience and research," Mehl said. "It smells like a political decision being imposed from Washington."
The Wilderness Society and several other conservation groups support a snowcoach-only alternative. "The other three studies all agreed that you can meet the goals of protecting the park and still make sure people enjoy it by going to snowcoach access," he said.
Not only science but also public opinion favors the snowcoaches, Mehl said. "Three hundred and fifty thousand Americans commented in the spring of 2002," he said. "Roughly 85 percent urged the Park Service to transition to snowcoach-only access."
The Park Service's "environmentally preferred" alternative, the one with the least impacts to park resources and wildlife, would "eliminate all oversnow access by recreational vehicles [including snowcoaches] even if there would be no potential to impact bison," according to the draft.
Unregulation led to problems
Historically, snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park was largely unregulated. According to park spokesman Al Nash, this lack of oversight led to problems from the 1980s to about 2000 because snowmobiles became increasingly popular. At one point the situation got so bad at the West Entrance of Yellowstone that each park ranger was advised to wear a breathing apparatus and hearing protection. Some rangers reported illnesses because of the fumes.
"There was a time in the past when the air quality, especially at the West Entrance, was abysmal," Nash said. "There was a blue haze of smoke. They were unacceptable conditions."
Mehl said that though four-stroke engine technology is cleaner and quieter, the problem with fumes continues today.
"The fumes get trapped by inversion," he said. "Fumes that might not otherwise be a big deal in the summertime are trapped and remain in the area because of the winter weather."
The impacts to air quality are unacceptable, said Bill Wade, spokesman for the Coalition of Retired Park Service Employees.
"It's disappointing to say the least," he said of the Park Service plan. "The data clearly show that even an average of 250 snowmobiles [a day] still causes impacts to air quality and noise. It just seems to us that 720 is not the right number based on the monitoring and the studies."
Nash agreed that snowmobile use over the last few years, which averaged about 250 snowmobiles a day, did result in violations of environmental limits established by the park. "There were times that we did exceed those thresholds in our measuring," he said.
As for what level of use would be acceptable, the coalition agrees with the Wilderness Society that snowcoach travel is the best alternative for the wintertime. "That, in our judgment, is the best way to go," Wade said.
Recreationists: Plan too strict
But recreation groups say snowcoaches don't provide enough opportunities to recreate in Yellowstone during the winter. Jack Welch, president of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a group that advocates snowmobile use in Yellowstone, said the park's preferred alternative is too restrictive.
Foremost, he said the park should initiate some sort of certification program that allows unguided snowmobilers to ride in the park.
"We still think there should be the ability for people to enter the park without hiring some kind of a guide," he said.
But more troubling, Welch said, are requirements that restrict snowmobile travel in Grand Teton National Park.
In Teton park, snowmobiles are restricted to 40 best-available-technology sleds on Jackson Lake for the sole purpose of ice fishing, to 50 best-available-technology sleds on the Continental Divide Trail, and to 50 sleds on the Grassy Lake Road.
On the Grassy Lake Road, best-available-technology sleds are necessary going from the park to Idaho, but not when traveling from Idaho to Flagg Ranch in the park.
Welch said this restriction works against snowmobilers in Jackson Hole who want to take advantage of riding in Island Park and other locations in Idaho, especially since trailers aren't allowed on Teton Pass during the winter.
Best-available-technology restrictions on the Continental Divide Trail, he said, also cause problems.
"It destroys the ability for people to ride the Continental Divide Trail from Lander to West Yellowstone," he said. The four-stroke sleds are "frankly, not very popular."
"The BlueRibbon Coalition is analyzing the preliminary document and we will be making our concerns known," Welch said.
Nash said that the Park Service's job during the planning process is to look for ways to mitigate impacts. "When you compare our preferred alternative to historic use, we've made great strides in addressing those concerns," he said. "There are some areas that we felt could be addressed to make things better than our current temporary plan. We don't have the problems that we did years ago."
NPS Meeting with Cooperating Agencies: Friday, December 8, 2006 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. at the Holiday Inn 1701 Sheridan Avenue, Cody, Wyoming 800-527-5544
The National Park Service (NPS) will meet with Cooperating Agencies to discuss a preliminary version of the Draft Environmental ImpactStatement (DEIS). Details follow below.
Public Information Fair:Friday, December 8, 2006 5 p.m. - 9 p.m. at the Holiday Inn 1701 Sheridan Avenue, Cody, Wyoming 800-527-5544
The NPS will host an Information Fair to be held following the Cooperating Agency meeting. At this event, NPS will be available to explain to visiting members of the public the information learned inmonitoring and modeling efforts.
Additional information may be obtained from Yellowstone National Park at 307-344-2019 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Temporary Winter Use Plans
Winter Use Planning in Yellowstone
Winter Use Technical Documents
sled debate revs up
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