February 15, 2003
A coalition of employee and environmental organizations filed suit on Dec. 3, 2002 in U.S. District Court to prevent the Bush administration from delaying a phase-out of snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park. The groups include Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Fund for Animals, Bluewater Network and others.
“The administration is sacrificing the health of the Yellowstone employees to pander to the snowmobile industry,” said Rocky Mountain PEER Director Chandra Rosenthal. “PEER believes that the well-being of park employees is essential to the well-being of the park,” she said.
Bluewater Network on Feb. 11, 2003 announced the release of thousands of documents from the U.S. Department of Interior that it said confirmed the damage snowmobiles cause to parks. The documents, said the group, were released as a result of the lawsuit. (The DOI adminsters the National Park Service.)
The December 2002 legal action was sparked by a Bush administration rule, issued Nov. 18, 2002, that sought to prevent changes to snowmobile usage in Yellowstone National Park.
The coalition groups filing the lawsuit argued that snowmobiles endanger the health of the Yellowstone staff that work at the park entrances, where large numbers of snowmobiles enter the park during the winter and spring snowmobile season. During Dec. 27-31, 2001, according to PEER, 4,797 snowmobiles entered the park through the west entrance.
According to PEER, park employees inhale gasoline fumes while performing their required duties and park rangers have long complained of experiencing nausea, headaches, dizziness and hearing loss when working near snowmobiles. A study completed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said PEER, found that Yellowstone workers were subjected to unacceptable levels of snowmobile pollution and noise. Every year, carbon monoxide levels from snowmobile use in Yellowstone have exceeded federal air quality standards, PEER noted.
The suit also argued that snowmobiles have adverse impacts on air and water quality as well as wildlife in Yellowstone, including endangered and threatened species such as grizzly bears, gray wolves, Canada lynx and bald eagles. According to NPS documents cited by PEER, the 80,000 snowmobiles in Yellowstone each winter produce more total air pollution than the cars and trucks used by the three million other visitors to the park. The roar of snowmobiles can be heard as much as 95 percent of the time in the park’s most popular spots, PEER said.
By moving to keep snowmobiles in Yellowstone, the Bush administration, PEER contended, has ignored the overwhelming number of public comments calling on a phase-out of snowmobiles from the park. In the last comment period, 80 percent of the 360,000 emails and letters received by the NPS favored a ban on snowmobiles
PEER also pointed out that the presence of snowmobiles would further strain the park’s cash-strapped budget by paying for respirators that protect workers from exhaust, outfitting employees with hearing protection devices, and redesigning entrance stations to pump clean air into booths used by rangers.
Department of Interior documents released
According to Bluewater Network, documents released by the DOI as a result of the suit state that current NPS snowmobile management is not consistent with management objectives or the protection of park resources and values, and is out of compliance with the requirements of two Executive Orders and NPS general regulations.
As an example, the Bluewater Network cited a memo from former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Donald Barry in which the DOI states that most, if not all, snowmobile operation “is not in conformity with applicable legal requirements.”
Additionally, snowmobile surveys and draft environmental assessments from more than two dozen parks reveal that snowmobiles cause significant damage to air and water quality, visitor enjoyment, public health and safety, soundscapes, vegetation and wildlife, said Bluewater Network.
“The Bush administration knows full well that snowmobiles cause major damage to park resources and wildlife, yet the administration’s actions clearly show that industry profits are more important than national parks,” said Sean Smith, Bluewater Network’s public lands director and a former park ranger.
Bluewater Network contended that the newly released information exposes that the Bush administration has taken no action to protect the park system from snowmobile damage. Instead, the group said, the administration halted work on several environmental reviews and proposed rules regarding snowmobiles and rolled back a plan to phase them out of Yellowstone National Park.
The group also cited a draft regulatory review from Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado that found that the roughly 28,000 snowmobiles that travel through the park each year disturb park animals such as bighorn sheep by pushing them out of preferred habitats, threaten public safety and contaminate park soils. The review, said Bluewater Network, concluded that banning snowmobiles would reduce air pollution in the interior of the park, eliminate any possible impacts to soils and vegetation, and eliminate toxic emissions that settle into the snow and eventually end up in the park’s streams and lakes.
In January 1999, Bluewater Network petitioned the National Park Service to impose a complete ban on recreational snowmobile operation throughout the park system. In April 2000, Barry recommended that the DOI grant a favorable response to the petition as the only way to protect the parks and uphold the law. Accordingly, said the group, the Clinton administration initiated several environmental reviews and proposed many regulatory changes.
When the Bush administration balked at the changes, PEER, Bluewater Network, the Fund for Animals, filed suit in December 2002.