I freely admit to having a few very strong biases. Perhaps the most basic, gut-level problem I have is with loud, whining, insistent, exhaust-emitting machines. Leaf blowers are truly a crime against nature–we have manual tools for that, ones that make little noise and do the job remarkably efficiently, with just a little sweat equity involved.
So perhaps my utter hatred for snowmobiles comes from the noise. Or maybe the smell. Or maybe it comes from the yahoos of my childhood, who thought recreation was getting liquored up and buzzing local ranch houses and cattle herds on their snow chariots in the middle of the night. In my book, snowmobiles should exist for one reason only, the one my aunt and uncle ranching in a remote corner of the county had. They never got plowed out, so the snowmobile was their only link to civilization–and supplies–for months on end.
I’ve been thinking about snowmobiles as a result of my annual visit–delayed until just this past weekend–to Yellowstone. The snow was just starting to fall around the Lamar Valley, in the far northeast corner of the Park, when I passed through. My treks thus far have all taken place in summer and early fall, and one of my primary goals for the near term is to see this remarkable place in winter. I’ve read story after story about the magic that takes hold of this place when the snow falls. I fully intend to experience it, and I don’t want to see it through a cloud of exhaust.
Which is likelier to happen this year than last, as Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis has decided to support a plan allowing up to 540 snowmobiles in the Park per day. It gets better: the Park Service is intending to push the decision through by the Park’s winter opening date of Dec. 19 despite the fact that they missed yesterday’s deadline for issuing it, meaning that the 30-day public comment period on the decision will be cut short: “‘We still believe that we can get a record of decision signed, get a rule published, and open as scheduled, despite the fact that we did not meet today’s deadline,’ [Park spokesman] Nash said, adding the 30-day comment period is a policy, not a regulation, and could be shortened.” (Maybe the fact that nearly three quarters of public commenters on the Park’s proposed management plan want a ban on snowmobiles has something to do with their lack of concern that public comment will be cut short.)
One high-profile opponent of snowmobiles in the Park, former assistant Interior secretary for fish and wildlife and parks under the Clinton administration, Don Barry, sees in this decision the kind of interference with science that has become too familiar in this administration’s Interior department. Barry spoke to the Association of National Park Rangers last month:
“The park just came out with a final EIS authorizing 540 snowmobiles a day. The average for the last three years has been 250. Two-hundred-and-fifty,” Mr. Barry, now with The Wilderness Society, told the group during its gathering in Park City, Utah. “But the park feels obligated to come in at 540. Now what’s appalling about this decision is the only way they could get to 540, was to water down the park protection standards that go along with this. And the worst offense of all, they watered down the ones for wildlife harassment, for air protection, and noise. And the worst of all was what they did with the noise protection standards. They redefined in that EIS what a major impact on the soundscape was for Yellowstone National Park because of snowmobiling.
“And they defined the new standard of what a major impact was to require that the noise be heard over 20 percent of the entire park. Now you could have an atomic fart and you would not hear it, you would not hear it over 20 percent of the national park. But that’s what they had to do in order to justify and to authorize 540 snowmobiles a day.”
In the event that you haven’t been there, it’s a big ol’ place, 2,219,789 acres to be exact. The EIS actually stated that for a noise to be harmful it actually has to reach across 443,958 acres. That’s some science, huh. Beyond the noise, there are the serious questions about air quality, about the emissions from snowmobiles getting into the snowpack of the park, and the inevitable stress on wildlife that have been at the center of this debate for the past decade. With the current administration in charge, real science on all of these issues continues to be sacrificed for political expediency.
The reality is there are alternatives for seeing the Park in winter, even motorized ones. Snowcoaches have proven to be a cleaner, quieter, and highly popular alternative. By taking more people in with fewer trips and cleaner technology, the snowcoaches provide a great alternative to hordes of snowmobiles. Of course, for those who really want to experience the park close up, the same advice holds winter and summer. Get away from your vehicle and go on foot. Skis and snowshoes are more than welcome throughout the Park.
There are also alternatives for taking your machine out and making as much noise as you want. Millions of empty acres exist all around the Park’s circumference–why is it so damned important to take the damned things into one of our nation’s most sacred shared spaces? That’s why eighty-six members of the House of Representatives have asked the Park Service to phase out snowmobiles in the Park. Tellingly, none of the delegations from Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming signed onto the letter, instead they’ve urged the opposite.
On this issue, I come firmly down on the side of the national over the regional interest. It’s not just a regional resource–it’s an American icon. Yellowstone National Park holds the incredible distinction of being the world’s first national park, a place which is meant to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein,” as stated in the Organic Act of 1916, and “a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as stated in the 1872 dedication. It would seem, for the longterm benefit and enjoyment of the people, it would make sense to take the most cautious road when it comes to managing this precious place.
Editor’s note: Joan McCarter’s weekly blogs are part of a new feature on NewWest.Net/Politics called “Diary of a Mad Voter,” a group blog, published in partnership with the Denver Post’s Politics West intended give a glimpse into the hearts and minds of several independent-minded voters and thinkers in the Rocky Mountain West in the ’08 election cycle. Check back this week at www.newwest.net/madvoter.