With Alaska’s “first dude” in mind, we bring you some snowmobile news from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
In a 63-page decision today, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected a plan by the National Parks Service that would have allowed as many as 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches to ramble through Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway every day.
The plan was to take effect this winter, but Sullivan sent it back to NPS in tatters, finding that the agency failed to explain why the plan’s potential harm to park soundscapes, wildlife, and air quality was acceptable.
First, a bit of background: Snowmobiles were on their out from Yellowstone in 2000, after an agency review determined their use was damaging the park’s resources in violation of NPS's Organic Act. The Clinton administration’s phase-out rule was published in 2001, the day after President George W. Bush took office.
The Bush administration suspended the ruling, and in response to lawsuits by snowmobile enthusiasts, NPS set a new limit of 950 snowmobiles per day in Yellowstone. Conservationist groups filed lawsuits challenging the rule, and NPS issued a temporary plan, to run through 2007, which allowed a daily limit of 720 snowmobiles. The most recent plan, for 2008 and beyond, reduced the limit to 540, though as Sullivan notes, it's not clear how the agency arrived at that number. According 2006 figures, the parks averaged about 290 snowmobiles a day.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition a group of conservation organizations that include the Sierra Club, the Winter Wildlands Alliance, the Wilderness Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Parks Conservation Association the largest national organization in the United States dedicated to the protection and enhancement of the National Park System challenged the new plan in lawsuits filed last November.
Sullivan roundly rejected it, ruling that the plan is “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act; that it “elevates use over conservation of park resources and values” and fails to explain why the plan’s adverse impacts are necessary as required under the Organic Act; and fails to provide a rational explanation for the source of the 540 snowmobile limit.
“According to NPS’s own data, the [plan] will increase air pollution, exceed the use levels recommended by NPS biologists to protect wildlife, and cause major adverse impacts to the natural soundscape in Yellowstone,” Sullivan wrote. “Despite this, NPS found that the plan’s impacts are wholly ‘acceptable,’ and utterly fails to explain this incongruous conclusion.”