YELLOWSTONE PARK, Wyo., June 27 (UPI) -- The heated battle over the future of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park moved to Congress on Thursday, with no sign that either side in the long-running environmental dispute will give an inch.
Reps. Rush Holt, D-N.J., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., introduced a bipartisan bill that would ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone, the nation's first and largest national park, and in nearby Grand Teton National Park. They have 123 co-sponsors for the measure.
The bill would supersede a new National Park Service proposal unveiled two days ago to permit snowmobiles under strict rules. The service had planned in 2001 to phase out the machines, but the Bush administration suspended the initiative.
The Holt-Shays bill, called the Yellowstone Protection Act, would reinstate that original park service plan to phase out the snow machines because of environmental concerns.
"By allowing snowmobiles in our most beloved park, we believe that the park service is making a giant mistake, a mistake that would sacrifice our historic commitment to preserving Yellowstone for future generations of Americans to enjoy," said Holt. "The administration's recent decision ignores science, law and public opinion, and we are here today to fight it."
The original phase-out plan was adopted after a decade of study on the impact of the snowmobiles on the park's wildlife, air quality, human health, and visitors. More than 22 public hearings were held before the plan was launched in early 2001.
The Environmental Protection Agency also called the phase-out of snowmobile use "the best available protection" for Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and human health, said Holt, a member of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Public Lands and Recreation.
The new rules announced by the park service Tuesday at a Cody, Wyo., meeting call for "very strict limitations" on the use of the snowmobiles. The machines would have to be cleaner, quieter, and operated only on guided tours. The proposed rules must be approved by November, but if the Holt-Shays bill passes that would be moot.
After the original phase-out was suspended and the park service began a new study, it received a flood of more than 350,000 comments, a majority of them favoring the ban. It was reportedly the largest public outpouring ever on a national park issue.
One of the major supporters of snowmobiles in the park, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, was not surprised by the introduction of the bill because some of its leaders had met with Holt and Shays recently.
"They have a lot of misinformation that they have received," said ISMA President Ed Klim. "For whatever reason, they don't really want to look at the correct data so they have introduced this legislation."
Klim said the lawmakers have received misinformation about the impact of the machines on air quality and the bison and elk herds in the park. He also pointed out that the snowmobiles only use established roadways and only operate in 1 percent of the park.
Klim emphasized that responsible snowmobile operators support limits, and nobody wants more machines in the park. About 65,000 snowmobiles use the park each winter, he said, compared with 1.6 million cars and trucks a year.
"We've always supported limits, and we have always been satisfied with the historical limit of 65,000. If there was a case that could be made it should be only 60,000, that is not a hangup with us. We agree with reasonable limits."
The bill was welcomed by environmental groups fighting to keep snowmobiles out of the park.
"What an inspiration to see Congress move so swiftly and so eloquently to guarantee that America's first national park is not diminished one bit," said Jon Catton, communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
He predicted widespread support for the legislation from across the country.
"Given the way Americans feel about Yellowstone National Park and the importance of protecting it for their children and grandchildren, no one should underestimate how much support there will be," he said.
(Reported by Phil Magers in Dallas)
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