A federal court ruled Monday that the Bush Administration’s decision authorizing snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park violates the fundamental legal responsibility of the National Park Service to protect the clean air, wildlife, and natural quiet of national parks, including Yellowstone, for the benefit of all visitors.

In a 63-page ruling that could decimate one thriving tourism sector and spur another, the court found that the Administration authorized snowmobile use despite scientific conclusions by the National Park Service that its decision would result in significant increases in noise and unhealthy exhaust, which disrupt the experiences of visitors, and traffic that harms Yellowstone’s wildlife, including bison.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today invalidated the Bush decision and directed that the National Park Service’s substitute plan ensures all visitors can safely experience the park, and uphold laws that require stronger protection of Yellowstone’s air quality, wildlife, and natural sounds.

In his ruling, Judge Emmett Sullivan stated “the Court finds that NPS has failed to articulate why a plan that will admittedly worsen air quality complies with the conservation mandate. The Plan clearly elevates use over conservation of park resources and values and fails to articulate why the Plan’s ‘major adverse impacts’ are ‘necessary and appropriate to fulfill the purposes of the park.’”


Environmental Groups who had sued to stop implementation of a plant hat would have nearly doubled snowmobile traffic at the park heralded the ruling as a major victory and urged the park service to start phasing out snow mobiling.

The suit was brough the the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Winter Wildlands Alliance, which collectively represent more than two million members. The organizations were represented by Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm in Bozeman, Montana, and the firm of Arnold & Porter in Washington D.C.


“Beyond Yellowstone, the court’s ruling reaffirms that a cornerstone purpose of our national parks is to provide opportunities to enjoy nature and these opportunities must not be compromised, particularly when protective alternatives are readily available,” said Bob Rosenbaum, attorney with Arnold & Porter.

The Sierra Club urged the National Park Service to develop a plan promptly that enables visitors to continue enjoying the park this winter in compliance with the court’s order. To ensure visitor experiences remain safe and enjoyable, and the local economy strong, the Park Service should ensure that the number of snowmobiles accessing the park remains this year at the daily average of the past five seasons-approximately 260 snowmobiles per day. Following that, the Park Service should work with local gateway communities and businesses to begin phasing down the number of snowmobiles in the winter of 2009-2010 while promoting expanded visitor access on modern snowcoaches.

The public is increasingly demanding the opportunity to enjoy Yellowstone via snowcoach, the Sierra Club said. Snowcoach use has grown 89 percent since 2002 due to increasing visitor demand for comfortable and educational park tours. Businesses have responded with significant investments in modern coaches that feature guides knowledgeable about Yellowstone’s geology, wildlife and history.

The number of snowmobiles authorized by the Administration-540 per day-would represent a doubling of current snowmobile use that has already been problematic and resulted in a tripling of the area in Yellowstone where visitors would hear motorized noise for half or more of the visiting day (63 square miles instead of 21 square miles currently).

Even with an average of 263 snowmobiles per day during the past five winters, snowmobile impacts have exceeded Yellowstone’s noise thresholds, according to scientific studies cited by The Sierra Club.

“This ruling reaffirms the idea at the heart of our National Park System-that the duty of Yellowstone’s managers is to preserve the Park for the sake of all visitors, and to place the highest value on protection of Yellowstone’s unique natural treasures,” said Tim Stevens, senior Yellowstone Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“This ruling will ensure that visitors are not disappointed by air and noise pollution when they make the one winter trip to Yellowstone of their lives,” said Amy McNamara, National Parks Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “We take our hats off to the tour businesses that didn’t wait for this ruling. Their increasing investments in modern snowcoaches are already making it possible for winter visitors to access and enjoy Yellowstone while protecting it.”

During the past ten years, over half a million Americans sent comments to the National Park Service concerning Yellowstone’s winter management, making it the most publicly-commented-on issue in the history of the national parks. A consistent 4-to-1 majority has favored accessing the park by snowcoach instead of snowmobile.