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EPA seeks stricter park snowmobile plan

Of The Gazette Staff

The Environmental Protection Agency is urging the National Park Service to change its latest proposal for snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park to reduce the amount of pollution emitted by the machines.

Scaling back emissions could mean changing the type or number of snowmobiles that are allowed into the park, according to an EPA official.

In its latest draft plan for snowmobiling in Yellowstone, park officials acknowledge that carbon monoxide emissions could, in some cases, exceed earlier thresholds set by the Park Service to "ensure that impairment and unacceptable impacts do not occur."

In a letter submitted to the Park Service last week, EPA officials suggested that the new rules be changed to ensure that those pollution limits aren't exceeded.

"Among the ways to meet those thresholds would be modifying the timing or number of vehicles or finding a way to reduce the noise or emissions profile of those vehicles," said Phil Strobel, the EPA's liaison to the Park Service for winter use rules.

The proposal is the latest in a long-running controversy over snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. A 2003 plan was rejected by a federal judge in Washington, D.C., last year; earlier this year, a temporary injunction was placed on the 2000 Clinton administration ban on the machines by a federal judge in Wyoming.

This summer, the Park Service came up with temporary rules designed to last up to three years while another in-depth study of the issue is conducted.

The temporary plan would allow 720 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone. All snowmobiles would have to meet guidelines for noise and air pollution and all riders would have to be accompanied by a commercial guide.

Winter use rules

The temporary rules do not include a key component of the previous plan: an "adaptive management" provision that allows park officials to monitor conditions and make adjustments on the number or type of snowmobiles if necessary.

Pollution thresholds were part of the "adaptive management" portion in the 2003 plan. Park officials say adaptive management isn't part of the latest plan because the rules are only temporary.

"We're really looking at a fairly small time frame of two to three winters," said Al Nash, a Yellowstone spokesman.

But EPA officials in their letter said the emissions thresholds are "significant to protecting park resources."

The EPA raised several other points in its comments:

# Information from last winter makes a "compelling case" that commercial snowmobile guides effectively reduce impacts to wildlife and visitors when compared to unguided tours.

# The Park Service didn't consider how the new plan would affect visibility, leaving unanswered questions about how the proposal would affect haze in the park.

# The proposal doesn't analyze how many acres will be affected by noise.

# The Park Service used a different definition of "best available technology" for snowcoaches from that used in previous plans. The new definition would allow "vehicles of widely varying emissions and noise profiles to continue to operate for three years without improvement."

# Air quality modeling in the proposal may significantly overestimate the pollution from "best available technology" snowcoaches and may have underestimated "worst case" carbon monoxide levels at Old Faithful during the winter.

# The Park Service should continue to promote snowcoaches in Yellowstone as the "environmentally preferred mode of transportation."

Nash said the temporary plan is aimed at providing information as park officials develop a long-range winter plan for the park. Substantive comments from EPA and others will help park officials develop the best rules for the park, he said.

"The comments that are of most value to us are those from organizations or individuals who have some in-depth information like this that they can offer," Nash said.

Public comments on the new proposal will be accepted until Oct. 7. Park officials hope to have the temporary rules in final form later that month.
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