Ochenski: Riders on the storm

Yellowstone: where the deer and the snowmobiles play



Nothing so vividly illustrates why the public has a cynical and growing apathy toward government as the outrageous decision by the Bush administration to subjugate both science and overwhelming public opinion to whore out Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks to the snowmobile industry. Adding insult to injury, the plan will increase, not ban, the use of snowmobiles in these spectacular nature parks.

This sad story starts during the Clinton administration, which made a decision to limit and eventually phase out the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. This decision, though unpopular with some—not all—in the gateway communities surrounding the parks, was made for some very good reasons. For one thing, breathing the thick blue exhaust from the thousands of noisy, polluting machines entering the parks on any given day was making park employees physically—not just aesthetically—sick. In a word, the machines were poisoning the air in our national parks, as evidenced not just by the ill health of the park employees, but also as documented by the Environmental Protection Agency, which recommended the machines be banned outright from the parks. The National Park Service then sought public comment on the proposed phase-out and ban. Citizens from all over the nation wrote, e-mailed, and called to support the ban. Over 360,000 comments were received in what park officials said was the largest public response to any issue in the history of the National Park Service. A stunning 80 percent of those comments supported the proposed ban on snowmobiles. In November of 2000, the Park Service issued its final Record of Decision to ban the machines by the winter of 2003–2004 and provide winter visitors access via clean, quiet snowcoaches.

But then George Bush was appointed president by the Supreme Court and everything changed. On his first day in office, Bush placed a moratorium on the ban. In what is described as a “friendly action,” the International Snowmobile Association then brought suit against the Bush administration, which “settled” the suit by putting the question of the ban back out to the public for yet another round of comment.

A March news piece by ABC News titled “Yellowstone National Park Under Attack By Pollution” warned that the “exhaust from snowmobiles and the high-pitched whine of their engines threaten the solitude of Yellowstone National Park,” adding that “herds of buffalo have been run off park roadways by bands of the machines.” The Environmental Protection Agency, in a report on emission guidelines for snowmobiles, noted that the average passenger car would have to drive 1,520 miles to emit the same amount of carbon dioxide that a snowmobile puts out in one hour. But that’s just the emissions. The noise is something altogether different.

Being lucky enough, some 24 years ago, to accompany the first and perhaps only dogsleds ever allowed to cross Yellowstone gave me a different perspective on the whole issue. We were there, with six teams of dogs and three cross-country skiers, prior to the opening of the park to snowmobile use for the season. Anyone who has spent time in the winter backcountry knows well the deep silence of the thick pines and the incredible peace of a snow-softened landscape covered in its thick blanket of white.

From a mile away, we could actually hear the roar of the thermal vents that give Roaring Mountain its name. As we passed the boiling hot springs, crystalline clear over their lining of blue-green mineralization, the bubbling of the superheated water was musically distinct. Toiling over Dunraven Pass on a day so cold and clear that ice crystals danced rainbows in the winter sun, a presence suddenly appeared at my side. The lead husky came abreast, then passed me silently with the rest of the team—no sound broke the winter’s magical silence except the wind in the pines, and the muted, steaming huff of the dogs as the sled’s runners slid by.

I hesitate to think what it would have been like to “share the trail” with whining, exhaust-belching snowmobiles during those five magical days in December of 1978. Even if miles away, the noise of even a few snowmobiles would have shattered the perfect silence. Had even one machine passed me, as the six teams of dogs did, I would have choked for hours on the thick exhaust left hanging heavy in its wake. Instead of the crystal silence of the stars in the 25-below-zero nights, our camps would have suffered the intrusion of two-stroke nightriders and the unnatural glare of their piercing lights in the otherwise perfect darkness of the world’s first national park. We were lucky to have been in the park in its natural winter condition, and we know it. Unfortunately, thanks to the Bush administration’s incessant proclivity to serve those who consume oil and pollute at will, few others will ever have an opportunity to experience this magnificent national treasure as we did.

But don’t worry, the Bush people promise a new generation of “cleaner, quieter” snowmobiles. Only one problem, those machines cost more, have less power, and go slower. As the Mayor of West Yellowstone, who runs a snowmobile rental operation, told ABC: “I have to charge at least four more dollars a day for the four-strokes. And nobody wants to spend that extra money.”

As for the sickened park employees, the Bush people have a solution for them, too. They’ll get respirators and sound protection to combat their headaches, sore throats, burning eyes and ringing ears. Great deal, ehh? Welcome to Yellowstone National Park—and don’t forget your respirator. Of course, that begs the question of whether the Park Service will provide respirators and hearing protection for the elk and bison, too?

Perhaps by keeping the nation perpetually at war Bush can divert attention away from such environmental atrocities at home. Then again, perhaps Bush’s polluting riders are heading for the storm of public backlash they so richly deserve.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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