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Originally published October 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 29, 2007 at 5:01 PM

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Get rid of Yellowstone snowmobiles, say 86 in Congress

Eighty-six members of Congress are asking the National Park Service to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. They contend the agency...

The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — Eighty-six members of Congress are asking the National Park Service to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. They contend the agency is ignoring the increased noise and air pollution that would result from a plan to allow up to 540 of the machines daily.

The congressional opposition, voiced in a letter sent today to Park Service Director Mary Bomar, comes as Yellowstone is set to finalize its snowmobiles rules in the next three weeks.

More than a decade in the making, the park's snowmobile policy has engendered a nationwide debate pitting public access advocates against conservationists who say Yellowstone should be closed to unguided motorized use during winter months.

The members of Congress — none of them from the Yellowstone area — told Bomar that snowmobiles should be replaced by a smaller number of guided snowcoaches. Those are essentially busses on skis.

Allowing snowmobiles, they wrote, would provide "inferior protection" of the park and show a "disregard" for the Park Service's conservation mission.

"The agency's studies have repeatedly demonstrated that the best way to protect the health and safety of Yellowstone's visitors, staff, wildlife and natural resources ... is to phase out snowmobile use entirely and increase public access by modern, multi-passenger, guide-driven snowcoaches," they wrote.

Park officials contend their plan for up to 540 snowmobiles a day fairly balances competing needs: conservation and visitor access.

Yellowstone had as many as 1,400 snowmobiles daily during the 1990s, when louder, more polluting two-stroke engines were the norm. After animal rights and environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 1997, claiming in part that snowmobiles were harming wildlife, the park in 2000 attempted to prohibit snowmobiles outright. That move that was later blocked in the courts by a snowmobile manufacturers group.

Park officials said today's cleaner and quieter four-stroke engines make the issue less pressing, although they have acknowledged that phasing out snowmobiles entirely would result in the most pollution reduction.

"We've had good success in reducing impacts from historical levels," said park spokesman Al Nash. "Our job is to protect this wonderful place, and provide protection and high quality visitor experience."

The park's recommended plan, he added, "is in line and in accord with Park Service management policies."

Over the past two years, Yellowstone considered but rejected a plan to allow 120 snowcoaches daily and no snowmobiles.

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The proposed 540 snowmobile cap is lower than a temporary cap of 720 snowmobiles that was in place for the past several winters. Actual use has been even less, averaging about 290 snowmobiles per day last year, according to figures provided by Yellowstone.

A final decision on the park's snowmobile plan will be made by National Park Service Regional Director Mike Snyder by Nov. 19. Much of the plan would not go into effect until the winter of 2008-2009.

A call to Snyder seeking comment was not immediately returned.

A spokesman for New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat and the leader of the group that signed today's letter, declined to comment on whether Congress might seek to eliminate snowmobiles through legislation if Snyder approves the proposed plan.

The letter was signed by members of Congress from 26 states. None were from the three states where Yellowstone is located — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Seven of the 86 were Republicans, and the rest were Democrats.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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