Snowmobiles in Yellowstone

Do You Want Snowmobiles at Yellowstone National Park?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Nov 6, 2013    •    800 Views

The 1916 legislation that created our National Park Service empowers it to “preserve” the resources of the Parks for the “enjoyment” of future generations. But what happens when “preserve” conflicts with “enjoy?”

By the 1990s, at 80,000 per season, the number of snowmobiles in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park was soaring. In the park that meant more noise, more pollution, wildlife disruption and machines invading a pristine environment. Outside the park, though, business was booming. Gateway towns enjoyed hordes of visitors spending money on food, lodging, snowmobile rentals and tours.

You can see how the “stage was set” for a clash between environmental groups and recreational interests.

The battle took them back to the Organic Act that established the National Park Service, to federal courts in Washington DC and Wyoming, and to the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. With rules that ranged from no snowmobiles to 940 a day and little oversight to stringent vehicle standards, new regulations were established and then changed.

Two dilemmas, though, consistently surfaced.

1. State or federal control? Whenever a Washington DC federal court heard the case, it supported environmental groups. The Wyoming federal court, though, reflecting Wyoming’s bias toward its recreation industry, issued decisions that favored local sentiment.

2. Preserve or enjoy? The 1916 Organic Act expressed both goals for the National Park System. Debating which should have priority, the “preserve” faction emphasized the importance of pristine beauty while the “enjoy” group cited jobs and state revenue.

Ultimately there were 7 different plans that generated opposition from one side or the other. According to a WGBH report, both sides have finally negotiated a resolution:

“…fewer than 51 groups of snowmobiles — each with up to 10 vehicles — will be allowed into the park per day, beginning in December 2014. The rule also sets new limits on snow coaches, larger vehicles that bring tourists into Yellowstone.

And as of December 2015, snowmobiles will have to pass stringent tests for noise and air pollution before they’ll be admitted inside the park. Experts say few existing snowmobiles can pass these tests.”

Our bottom line? Opportunity cost is at the top of the list here. Take the business perspective and you sacrifice the environmental benefits. Opt for local control and you lose federal influence. Which would you choose?

Sources and resources: Most of my facts come from a detailed legal history of the conflict from Arnold and Porter (counsel for the environmental groups) and WGBH.



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