MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo., Nov. 12 (UPI) -- The National Park Service has recommended increasing winter snowmobile traffic in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, according to the draft of a supplemental environmental impact statement the agency released Tuesday.
The new policy marks a 180-degree reversal of Clinton administration policy. It would cap snowmobiles in Yellowstone and the neighboring Grand Teton Park at 1,100 per day, an increase of about 17 percent, according to preliminary figures released by the park service at a news conference.
The new policy is an attempt to "achieve a balanced approach that allows a balance of activities, but with strict regulation to protect the resources," NPS Deputy Director Randy Jones told reporters.
"It's fairly astounding to me, given the preponderance of public comments and the science, that it went this way," said Steve Thomas, the Northern Plains representative of the Sierra Club. "Somebody's not listening."
The decision means "industry, any industry, in the West has the ear of the congressional delegations," Thomas told United Press International. "If it makes money, it's OK, regardless of its impact on the environment or on wildlife. This goes right up through the Bush administration."
The snowmobile policy is one of the most controversial issues the park service has faced in recent years. About 340,000 public comments were received on the issue, nearly 270,000 of them -- a 4-to-1 margin -- in favor of a complete ban on winter snowmobiling in the park.
The Clinton administration had pursued a policy of banning snowmobiles from the parks, citing wintertime stresses on wildlife -- primarily bison and elk -- as well as clean air concerns and noise levels.
Ed Klim, spokesman for the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, said he had not seen the park service draft but from what he understood of the decision, "We're pleased that we'll be able to snowmobile in Yellowstone."
Klim told UPI new technologies in snowmobile manufacture have lowered the noise level, and reduced hydrocarbon emissions by as much as 90 percent and carbon monoxide emissions by 50 percent to 75 percent.
Park service officials cited these new technologies in approving the supplemental environmental impact statement. The daily limit is being set at 1,100 "snow machines" a day. That limit could mean fewer snowmobiles in the parks at peak winter visitation times -- Christmas, New Year's and Presidents Day weekend, but overall, if daily peaks are met, snowmobiling in the parks would increase.
The policy is the first time any limits have been placed on snow machines in the parks. The park service will require 80 percent of all snowmobile trips be made with professional guides. The policy also will require snow machines entering the park be four-stroke engines that meet noise and emissions control requirements.
The park service also will adapt management techniques currently being used to give permits on heavily run rivers -- such as the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon -- for permitting snowmobile trips into Yellowstone.
"The machines are cleaner, they say, but they still don't meet muster," said Thomas. "We think there will be some National Park Clean Air Act standards violations. The noise level of the new four-stroke engines is better, but it's not good. And there will be more of them, so the overall noise level will probably be about the same."
The document under consideration is a draft of a final decision that is set to be issued in March 2003.
(Reported by Dan Whipple, UPI Science News, in Broomfield, Colo.)