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Gazette opinion: Snowmobile plan needs more tweaks

Over the summer, the National Park Service hustled to draw up new rules for snowmobiling in Yellowstone this winter.

Before the winter starts, we'd urge them to tinker a little more.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to the Park Service urging them, among other things, to make sure the new temporary plan doesn't allow pollution levels to exceed targets set out in a 2003 plan.

The latest Park Service proposal says those thresholds - meant to "ensure that impairment and unacceptable impacts do not occur" - could be exceeded in some cases for carbon monoxide, one of the primary pollutants from snowmobiles.

Even though the new temporary proposal is only expected to last up to three years, there's no reason for the Park Service to stray from pollution targets set out last year. In its comments, EPA noted that the thresholds are not regulatory limits but that they are "significant to protecting park resources."

EPA encouraged the Park Service to find a way to make sure those pollution targets are met. We would agree.

The Bush administration is engaging in a delicate balancing act in trying to allow snowmobile access and keep environmental protections in place.

The Park Service and EPA have acknowledged that phasing out snowmobiles would be the best option for protecting the environment and public health. The new plan would allow up to 720 "cleaner and quieter" snowmobiles a day and all riders would be required to be accompanied by a commercial guide.

The commercial guiding requirement remains controversial - some feel a group tour ruins the solitude of riding in the park - but EPA says it's a "sound approach" that last year seemed to improve wildlife and visitor safety.

As far as emissions, we agree that the four-stroke machines are an improvement over the pollution-spewing two-stroke snowmobiles. It's imperative, though, that the new machines be kept in check.

The new plan makes positive strides in cutting the amount of several harmful emissions, such as benzene. But it's worrisome that those previously set emissions thresholds could be exceeded in places like Old Faithful and the West Entrance.

EPA, in its comments, raises other issues, including that the Park Service may be underestimating the "worst case" scenario at Old Faithful and that the new study, unlike the previous one, does not include an analysis of how visibility will be affected.

We understand the political pressure and time constraints the Park Service is faced with and respect those who have toiled on study after study of this issue. But the job isn't finished. As detailed comments from EPA and others continue to come in, we take Park Service officials at their word that the submissions will be reviewed closely and changes will be made if necessary.

Yellowstone deserves no less.

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