In the autumn 2003 issue of Montana: The Magazine of Western History, geographer and public lands historian Michael Yochim [who today works for Yellowstone National Park], wrote an insightful essay that offers a chronology of the current controversy over snowmobiles and national parks.
In his story, Yochim references a modern act of vigilantism that reflects a unique brand of Western justice going back at least to the dawn of the American frontier:
“Late one December night in 1974 on Marias Pass,” Yochim wrote, “Glacier National Park ranger Art Sedlack put a bullet through a snowmobile. With this shot, Sedlack not only gained the upper hand in dealing with a group of law-breaking snowmobilers, he also became an instant hero to all who valued wilderness.”
Today in Montana, former ranger Sedlack remains something of a legend. The Montana Wilderness Association has an award, named in his honor, that it gives to citizens who act on their personal convictions to protect the environment. The prize isn’t meant to condone monkeywrenching or lawlessness; rather, it’s a conscious recognition that occasionally the safest protocol for doing one’s job doesn’t always mesh with what’s needed in the moment.
On another related tangent, the world today also understands the full fury that can be incited following a Danish newspaper ‘s publishing of a cartoon featuring Muhammad, the godhead of Islam, in a comic manner.
Riots broke out. People died. Tastefulness, it turns out, lies in the eyes of the beholder and the branch of religion they practice. It’s acceptable to be a suicide bomber who blows up a mosque in the name of Islam but blasphemy to provoke discussion about God with ink.
One could imagine, then, that perhaps John Sacklin, chief planner in Yellowstone Park, is right about now experiencing the same kind of emotions as the Danish newspaper cartoonist and perhaps a surreal but accidental spiritual connection to Glacier Park ranger Art Sedlack.
What Mr. Sacklin did was press his fingers against his computer keyboard at work and pass along, via email, a joke that had been circulating on the internet. He sent it to three members of the snowmobile industry.
That, it runs out, was a grave mistake.
The tongue-in-cheek satire suggested that a hunt on snowmobiles be created in and around Yellowstone, a take-off on Montana’s treatment of wandering park bison. “All shots must be fired from the front seat of a Chevy or Ford pickup truck,” the narrative reads. “No hunting on foot will be tolerated. Shooting at snowmobile drivers is discouraged unless they are non-residents [of Montana] or NPS [National Park Service] employees.”
As a result of Sacklin’s sharing, some people, with connections to the snowmobile industry, now want him removed from having any professional involvement with snowmobile issues in America’s oldest national park.
Whitney Royster, an environmental reporter with the Casper Star-Tribune, interviewed Kim Raap, a consultant who had managed Wyoming’s state trails program that includes building and maintaining recreation routes for snowmobilers.
According to Royster, Raap believes that Sacklin should be removed from being involved with the park’s current winter use study — the third major environmental review conducted on snowmobile use over the past decade. Millions of tax dollars have been spent reviewing and re-reviewing the question of whether snowmobiles should be allowed to continue existing as a winter transportation vehicle in the park or be completely prohibited.
“I would say it’s pretty poor taste to be circulating something like that from a government official,” Raap told Royster.
“Raap said individuals send joke e-mails, but Sacklin is in charge of the winter use study, and no one in the snowmobile industry thought it was funny,” Royster noted.
Added Raap: “I believe that John [Sacklin] should not be involved in this process, absolutely. This is a misbehavior that taints the process. Everybody’s goal is to get us through this process and end up with something that’s better that everybody feels was done above board.”
Sacklin didn’t invent the “joke”; he merely passed it on to members of the snowmobile industry with whom he has maintained a cordial and professional correspondence. He presumably never thought they would take offense.
Not to be outdone, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle published an editorial titled “Unfortunate e-mail taints Yellowstone winter plans” in which it painted Sacklin’s forwarding of the email as “an official communiquÃ© from a public employee charged with helping set public policy on the public’s use of public real estate.”
“Yellowstone’s job,” the Chronicle opined on its soapbox as if Sacklin had actually been seriously endorsing a snowmobile hunt, “in this case, is to assess the scientific and economic affects of its policy options. It is not to advocate extreme political agendas. We have plenty of elected officials and special-interest groups to handle that part of the debate. The whole process gets tainted when a public employee — and particularly a supervisor — steps into the politics of the issue while supposedly gathering and analyzing unbiased, non-political information.”
If there’s fodder for future story material in the Chronicle, it can be found in a thorough analysis of what the science actually says about noise and air pollution relating to two-stroke and the cleaner running four-stroke engines now mandated in the park. Instead of resorting to he-said, she-said, stories, as has dominated coverage of the Yellowstone debate by many outlets of the regional media, the paper would do well to help the public sort out the real facts since the public obviously is confused.
On February 13, the Great Falls Tribune published its own editorial encouraging Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer to take a hard look at the science that is supposed to be guiding snowmobile policy.
Here are a few snippets of what the Tribune found:
“The reason the Bush administration is under so much fire for its snowmobile policy at Yellowstone is because it ignores years of data by a range of scientists. Even the Park Service expressed concerns,” its opinion makers wrote and pointed to these bullet points:
“According to the document,” the Tribune adds, ” when the technology concept for snowmobiles was established, the Park Service ‘expected that snowmobile emissions would continue to improve. However, there have been no improvements in snowmobile air or sound emissions since 4-strokes were introduced in 2001.’”
As for the public comment process, which the snowmobile industry claims has been incomplete, the Tribune added: “Over the years more than half a million comments have been received by the park on its winter-use plans. They overwhelmingly oppose snowmobile use. In the most recent public comment period, more than 90 percent of those writing in had concerns about snowmobiles in Yellowstone.”
What’s puzzling is that the snowmobile industry and the Bozeman Chronicle would cite the joke as evidence that Sacklin is somehow biased against the machines.
Ever since the Bush Administration came into power in 2001, the President’s politically-appointed representatives at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. have, in fact, worked together with industry to unravel restrictions imposed upon snowmobile use in Yellowstone first advanced by the Clinton Administration.
At every step of the way, Yellowstone officials, including career professionals like Mr. Sacklin, have publicly supported the flip-flop of policy, despite the new policy’s apparent contradiction of science which was used to support the snowmobile ban in the first place. There’s no question that Yellowstone staffers are under enormous pressure to bend in whatever direction the political winds blow.
A New York Times story written a few winters ago by reporter Katharine Q. Seelye revealed that the Yellowstone planning office, under Sacklin’s command, hadstalled the release of an internal study indicating that an all-out ban on snowmobiles was the best way to reconcile air and noise pollution problems caused by the machines. Sacklin at the time was considered a good foot soldier for the Bush Administration. It left environmentalists baffled because only a few months earlier Mr. Sacklin seemed to be arriving at opposite conclusions.
In fact, it was Mr Sacklin who was quoted in Seelye’s story as saying that the agency’s new preferred alternative of allowing snowmobile use to continue——[a policy decision handed down by Interior Secretary Gale Norton in concert with assistant Secretary Paul Hoffman, the former Cody Chamber of Commerce director] — sought what Sacklin called a “balance” between environmental concerns, on the one hand, and economic considerations on the other.
The park’s position, defended by Sacklin, was roundly criticized by environmentalists and, it is presumed, welcomed by the snowmobile industry.
Seelye reported: “Mike Finley, the superintendent of Yellowstone in the Clinton administration and now president of the Turner Foundation, an environmental grant-making foundation based in Atlanta, said that the existence of the internal report showed that the administration’s decision-making process on snowmobiles was “a sham.”
“They’re trying to re-cook the books but they can’t re-cook the science,” Mr. Finley said. “This is not based on science but on the politics of the red states,” those that President Bush won in the 2000 election.”
Ironically, back in the days when Mr. Finley was Yellowstone superintendent, Clinton was in the White House, and it appeared that a total phase out of snowmobiles was going to happen, members of the motorized recreation industry were rattling their rhetorical sabers with accusations that the Park Service had become a bastion for extreme environmentalism. Yellowstone had been deluged with thousands upon thousands of public comments, admittedly many were submitted as postcard form letters, supporting the snowmobile ban.
More recently, amid the Bush presidency, the same agency has suddenly been characterized as thoughtful and prudent and sensitive to the desires of citizens as the snowmobile industry would like to see the restrictions loosened up.
Where does that leave Mr. Sacklin? His superiors in Yellowstone, including Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis, are standing behind their man in the hot seat. It is, as of this early date, still too early to tell if his consolation prize for attracting the ire of the snowmobile industry will be his nomination by environmentalists for the Art Sedlack award.
But whatever happened to Sedlack after he shot and killed a snowmobile? He did it, he said afterward, so that the snowmobile’s owner could no longer defy rangers who were trying to stop illegal trespassers into Glacier Park. It seemed to send a message that got the attention of terrain poachers. “Sedlack’s actions also drew attention from fellow NPS employees,” Yochim writes. “Yellowstone Park naturalist Paul Schullery suggested that Sedlack ‘had just done what we all had wanted to do, many times. Shooting the machine, someone remarked, was even better than shooting the driver. . . . There was no question in our minds that the man was a hero. There was talk of taking up a collection and buying him a [M]agnum. And a few days after the incident, a little note appeared on the ranger office bulletin board: ‘Snow machines will not be shot. They will be live-trapped.’”
The odds are good that the snowmobile industry won’t find Schullery’s live-trapping comment to be funny either.
For his part in discharging his service firearm, Sedlack was suspended for two weeks without pay, and the Park Service, Yochim notes, held a hearing on the shooting. According to Yochim, the Park Service reached no conclusion but did send Sedlack to a refresher course at the Park Service law enforcement academy.