In winter, nearly 1,700 snowmobiles roar into Yellowstone National Park on the typical weekend day, filling the air with noxious fumes and a dreadful racket. The carbon monoxide pollution is so bad that fresh air has to be pumped into offices to protect park employees' health. As for noise, winter visitors to Old Faithful will hear the drone of snowmobiles 95 percent of the time. The traffic disrupts wildlife patterns as well, putting further strain on the delicate balance between human and environmental needs.
An earlier National Park Service investigation concluded that the "preferred alternative" to solving the problem is to ban recreational snowmobiles at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The park service even proposed an alternative, a "snow coach" that would take nine to 12 visitors at a time into the park but be more closely supervised. President Clinton agreed with that recommendation and ordered a phaseout of snowmobiles by 2004.
When the recreational vehicle industry objected to President Bush, however, he ordered a review of the policy. The result is a "compromise" that gives the snowmobile industry most of what it wants and fails to address the environmental issues.
The Bush administration would take no action this winter, but beginning next year it would restrict the number of snowmobiles in the two parks to 1,100 a day, which is more than those currently using the park on weekdays but a reduction on weekends. It would require that 80 percent of the snowmobiles be led by commercial guides and that the vehicles have newer engines, which are supposedly quieter and less polluting. While those steps would be an improvement over the current situation, they fall far short of protecting the parks.
A ban would be best for most winter visitors and for the parks' environmental health. Snowmobilers still would have plenty of places left to pursue their hobby. By rejecting a ban, the Bush administration has violated an important principle. National Parks are owned by all Americans and should be managed "by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," according to the 1916 legislation creating the park service.
The snowmobile policy is just another example of how the Bush administration has ignored the need to protect our most valuable natural places.