Casper — With the winter season closing in and Wyoming snow outfitters in limbo, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park officials unveiled a temporary winter use plan that lowers daily snowmobile numbers by more than 40 percent.

The proposed reduction came after a previous parks service plan, allowing 540 snowmobiles a day into the parks, was rejected by a Washington, D.C., federal judge in September as being potentially harmful to the park environment.

“According to the National Park Service’s own data, the (plan) will increase air pollution, exceed the use levels recommended by NPS biologists to protect wildlife, and cause major adverse impacts to the natural soundscape in Yellowstone,” Judge Sullivan wrote in his Sept. 15 court order.

The plan Judge Sullivan rejected was the most recent Bush administration effort to block efforts, hatched in the Clinton administration, to phase out snowmobiles in three years. Snowmobile manufacturers quickly challenged the decision in court, and by 2001, the Bush administration settled the lawsuit and agreed to reexamine the Clinton-era plan.

After years of legal wrangling, dueling judges and interim plans, the National Park Service finally decided to allow 540 snowmobiles to go through in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway every day, starting this winter.

But Judge Sullivan said that letting in the proposed 540 snowmobiles “elevates use over conservation of park resources and values.” The National Park Service “fails to articulate why the plan’s ‘major adverse impacts’ are ‘necessary and appropriate to fulfill the purposes of the park,’” Sullivan said in his September order.

The National Park Service must redo the plan, Sullivan said, and be responsive to the concerns he raised.

“This is as fast a track as we could move,” said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash, prior to the 2008-09 winter season, which opens Monday, December 15, 2008.

The proposed alternative would allow up to 318 commercially guided, best available technology (BAT) snowmobiles, and up to 78 commercially guided snowcoaches a day in Yellowstone. The public has been invited to comment on the new proposal.

The 250-page Winter Use Plans Environmental Assessment (EA) and an electronic form to submit comments on the Internet can be found on the web at http://parkplanning.nps.gov. Written comments may be submitted through this web site, in person, or by mail. Comments will not be accepted by phone, fax, or e-mail. All public comments must be received or postmarked by midnight, November 17, 2008.

The proposed daily snowmobile limit is slightly above last winter’s average of 294 snowmobiles a day, yet it well below the 720 a day allowed over the past four winters, and is also lower than the 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches a day under the plan that was rejected by the federal court.

“Well, 318 is certainly better than 540 or 720, on that we can agree,” said Bill Wade, director of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

“However it makes no sense to us that the Park Service still wants to increase snowmobiles while holding snowcoaches at level numbers. This is still inconsistent with the science; with public opinion and with the intent of the federal judge’s ruling.”

Amy McNamera, National Parks Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said that while the Yellowstone Coalition would like to see the cap set at the five-year daily average of 260, they’re not going to fight the cap of 318 for this winter.

“We need to have something in place for this winter,” said McNamera. A year from now, however, McNamera would like to see a full-fledged plan that will move toward 100 percent reliance on snowcoaches for winter transportation.

Judge Sullivan agreed with conservation group plaintiffs, that the daily averages (260-290) exceeded NPS’s own thresholds for noise and air pollution, and thus violate the Organic Act, which governs NPS operations.

Nash noted that Judge Sullivan provided no numerical guidelines and that park officials felt the new cap proposal “reduces impacts to acceptable levels.”

Jack Welch, former president of the Blue Ribbon Coalition (and now director of special projects for the organization) said the gateway business communities had already made marketing plans and bought equipment, based on the higher number of 540.

Welch said the 318 number should be the management average, allowing outfitters to exceed that number during holiday peaks, in the interests of flexibility.

Welch called the 318 cap “woefully inadequate.”

Last winter, the peak number of snowmobiles in the parks, on a given day, was 557, during the Christmas to New Year’s holidays. According to Yellowstone officials, had the 318 cap been in place last winter, it would have meant there would have been 29 days in the 82-day season when actual snowmobile numbers would have exceeded that cap – representing 2,121 snowmobiles.

John Sacklin, management assistant to Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis, said the 318 cap figure first appeared in the 2004 environmental assessment, as one of several alternatives under discussion. As Yellowstone officials worked through previous winter use plans and environmental planning documents, he said, the 318 number was viewed to be defensible.

Yellowstone staff and attorneys are all too aware that U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne, may issue his own ruling any day now, based on a Blue Ribbon Coalition petition to increase the number of snowmobiles allowed in the parks.

Welch said the Coalition’s lawyers had asked Brimmer to reinstate the temporary winter use plan, which was in effect for three years prior to the plan that was tossed out by Judge Sullivan. The temporary winter use plan was set at 720 snowmobiles per day.

The two judges are peers within the federal district court system – neither one having authority over the other.

Regarding the Yellowstone snowmobile controversy as having national importance, the environmentalists filed their lawsuit in the nation’s capital, where it wound up before Judge Sullivan.

Conversely, the snowmobile industry and the State of Wyoming regarded the controversy as of special interest to Wyomingites and westerners, and therefore filed suit in Wyoming, where it wound up before Judge Brimmer.

Compounding the difficulty of having the issue in two district courts, is that the two federal courts lie within different courts of appeal. Conceivably, Earthjustice and legal counsel for Wyoming and snowmobile proponents could wind up arguing their cases in four different courts: Brimmer’s and Sullivan’s district courts, and their respective courts of appeal – the 10th Circuit Court for anything emerging from Brimmer’s court and the District of Columbia Circuit Court for anything emerging from Sullivan’s court.

The Sullivan ruling, the new proposal from Yellowstone and the pending ruling from Brimmer make for an extremely uncertain business climate.

Jon Toolson, manager of Old Faithful Snowmobile Tours in Jackson, said the upcoming season is looking “very dismal.”

“Most of my business is overnight, so with these lower numbers, I’ve got 56 trips that are overbooked,” Toolson said. Last winter, he could bring 14 snowmobiles per day into Yellowstone – now, he’s limited to nine. In order to honor his current bookings, he’ll have to buy “snowmobile days” from other vendors.

And he can’t divert would-be Yellowstone customers to the national forests around Jackson – he doesn’t have enough permits.

Some of his competitors are in an even stickier spot. Toolson sells half of his snowmobile fleet every year, and replaces that half with new machines. Some outfitters sell their entire fleet every other year, and for those who sold off all their machines this year, he said, it may not be worth their while to buy new machines for this upcoming winter.

“There’s just too much uncertainty,” said Toolson. He’s worked for Old Faithful Snowmobile Tours for 13 years – this was his year to start buying the business from owner Wendy Cole.