The Environmental Protection Agency, in a report released Monday, recommends that snowmobiles be banned from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, stating that wintertime exhaust from the popular snow machines violates air-quality laws and jeopardizes human health.
The EPA report says that the agency is concerned that as a result of the Bush administration's decision to postpone a phased elimination of snowmobiles, "air quality, human health and visibility continued to be impaired" last winter.
The report is part of a public comment process that will lead to a final National Park Service decision in November on the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Comments on the Park Service's snowmobile regulations will be accepted until May 29.
"The EPA is saying the park service has abundant evidence of snowmobile damage in Yellowstone and that it made the right judgment a year ago when it decided to phase out snowmobile use," said Jon Catton, spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Mont.
Snowmobile interests argue that the EPA's findings ignore data from manufacturers that show some new engine designs are cleaner and quieter than even a couple of years ago.
"I'm really surprised that the EPA didn't look at all of that," said Jack Welch, president of BlueRibbon Coalition, a Pocatello, Idaho-based group that advocates keeping federal lands open to snowmobiles and other motorized recreation vehicles.
According to the EPA, the best way to control air pollution while continuing to permit some mechanized access in winter is to go ahead with a ban while allowing multipassenger "snow coaches," which resemble small buses on motorized tracks.
"EPA fully supports continued winter access to ... national parks. EPA is satisfied that ... park resources can be protected while maintaining motorized winter access," wrote Max H. Dodson, an assistant regional EPA administrator in Denver, in an April 23 letter to the Park Service.
A Clinton administration decision to ban the vehicles was reached in 2000 but was revisited under President Bush after the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and others filed a lawsuit challenging the pending ban. Under a settlement agreement, the National Park Service proposed a variety of options to permit at least limited snowmobile use, even as Yellowstone rangers donned respirators last winter to protect themselves from noxious exhaust.
Among the options being considered by the Park Service are limits on the number of snowmobiles, cleaner machines and better supervision by rangers or guides. But the EPA, in detailed comments on the proposals, disputed whether those controls could be enforced or produce significant results. The agency said most of the proposals would continue to allow unacceptably high levels of carbon monoxide.
The Park Service "has been aware of this significant air quality issue for a number of years, and we therefore do not understand why it is not addressed in ... all alternatives considered in" its environmental impact study, the EPA report says.
Under stagnant, cold conditions, pollution gets trapped low to the ground and can quickly build to harmful levels. Last winter, about 70,000 snowmobiles descended on Yellowstone along with hundreds more at nearby Grand Teton National Park.
The lawsuit by the snowmobile manufacturers was joined by the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group of off-road companies and advocates, and the state of Wyoming. Off-road enthusiasts have charged that the proposed ban would unfairly close their access to public land. Representatives for snowmobile manufacturers could not be reached for comment.
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