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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Recreational Snowmobile Ban

Air Date: Week of

Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, looks at the reaction to the National Park Service announcement that it will impose new restrictions on recreational snowmobiling at many of the country’s national parks.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The latest round in the decades-old battle between snowmobilers and those who prefer wintertime quiet on wild public lands has gone to the anti-snowmobilers. The Interior Department says it will begin enforcing existing regulations that effectively ban recreational snowmobile use in all but a few national parks. Mechanized vehicles of all types are already banned in designated deep wilderness areas, such as the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. But national park snowmobiling is a lucrative business with many supporters, and the battlefield may shift to Congress. From member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, Jyl Hoyt reports.

HOYT: Regulations that limit off-road vehicles in national parks and recreation areas date back to 1972. But it wasn't until last year when more than 60 environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Park Service to review the effects of snowmobiles that officials decided they hadn't followed their own rules. Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Donald Barry.

BARRY: And we came to the conclusion that we did not have an adequate justification, or an adequate legal basis, for allowing snowmobiling to continue within those parks.

HOYT: Surveys from park superintendents and winter-use research in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks show snowmobilers threaten wildlife and cause water, air, and noise pollution. At Yellowstone, visitors hear snowmobiles 95 percent of the time at Old Faithful Geyser, according to one survey. Park videos show snowmobilers harassing winter-stressed bison, as both people and animals travel along the same groomed trails. Fuel and oil that spew from the six-stroke snowmobile engines end up in rivers and streams during spring snow melt. Interior's Donald Barry says the 85,000 snowmobile visits each year in Yellowstone threaten workers' safety.

BARRY: We have to pump clean air into the ticket booths at the entrance stations to keep our employees from getting sick from all the carbon monoxide and particulate matter that is flying out the exhaust pipes of the snowmobiles.

CATTON: On the one hand, it's sad and overdue that the agency is admitting this.

HOYT: John Catton of the environmental group Greater Yellowstone Coalition lauds Interior's action to enforce and further limit recreational snowmobiling in national park units.

CATTON: On the other hand, it's encouraging that they're stepping forward and admitting that they can and now will do a better job of protecting our national parks.

HOYT: Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park, and parts of the Alaska park system are exempt from the ruling. Recreational snowmobiling is explicitly permitted by law at these sites. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are exempt until this fall, when their winter use plans will be complete. The park has already announced it's leaning towards banning recreational snowmobiling at these sites. The Park Service predicts a 30 percent decrease in winter visitors because of snowmobiling restrictions. That would cost the 17-county region of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho an estimated sixteen-and-a-half million dollars and about 400 jobs. Snowmobile users are joining with business owners who live in adjacent towns to fight the new rules enforcement. Clark Collins is director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national group that promotes motorized travel on public lands.

COLLINS: This current effort to close the national parks to snowmobile use isn't about emissions and noise. It's about catering to anti-recreation access groups who just want snowmobiles out of our national parks, and even out of our national forests.

HOYT: Collins's Blue Ribbon Coalition is enlisting members of Congress to stop the snowmobile ban. Craig Gherke of The Wilderness Society in Idaho, a group that supports the ban, says environmentalists are gearing up for the fight.

GHERKE: I'm sure they'll be hauling the director of the Park Service up before any number of Congressional subcommittees, asking what they're doing. This is a tough political nut for them to take on.

HOYT: Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Donald Barry says the interests of the park system are paramount. The Interior Department has already limited cars in Yosemite, banned jet skis in most parks and recreation areas, and is in the process of limiting aircraft and cars in Grand Canyon and a dozen other national parks. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.



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