Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is about to finalize a rule to allow continued snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park.
As we have argued on several occasions, enactment of the rule would be a mistake. The noise and air pollution snowmobiles already have brought to one of the crown jewels of our national parks system are a rude affront to a natural showcase and the public that would enjoy it in winter.
But don't take just our word. Listen to what eight former national park, Interior Department, and Yellowstone officials said in a letter to Ms. Norton:
“The choice over snowmobile use in Yellowstone is a choice between upholding the founding principle of our national parks - stewardship on behalf of all visitors and future generations - or catering to a special interest in a manner that would damage Yellowstone's resources and threaten public health.”
The writers collectively have served nine presidents going back to the 1960s. They know what needs to be done to protect the nation's parks for maximum enjoyment by the greatest number of people.
“A decision made on behalf of the snowmobile industry and not for Yellowstone's environment and the general public would be wrong,” they wrote.
The park service made a decision in late 2000 to phase out snowmobiles in favor of more efficient snow coaches for tourists, but it was countermanded shortly after the Bush Administration took office.
Over the past couple of winters, some 1,500 of the clattering recreational vehicles have descended on the park on busy weekend days, their oily blue exhaust haze obscuring the view of the Old Faithful geyser and other scenic wonders.
Frequent atmospheric inversions concentrate the pollution most harshly along the roadways where the snowmobiles run. The fumes are hazardous to the public, the park rangers who work there, and the bison that flock to those same roads. The noise mars the majestic winter stillness.
The rule now on Ms. Norton's desk would require use of snowmobiles that are somewhat quieter than previous models but still pollute more than automobiles. It also would allow 35 percent more snowmobile traffic than before, while spreading activity over a wider area. Enforcement would be costly, about $1.3 million more each year at a time when federal dollars are scarce.
In sum, there are a number of compelling reasons for the administration to reconsider the snowmobile rule. If that doesn't happen, legislation has been introduced in Congress to codify the previous decision in federal law. Toledo Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur recently added her name to its list of more than 140 co-sponsors.
Keeping snowmobiles out of Yellowstone is not an attack on a particular industry, despite what the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association might claim. Rather, it is about protecting what the eight former park officials call “an irreplaceable national treasure,” a treasure that belongs to all of us.