Senate joins debate over snowmobile use at Yellowstone

The rules governing snowmobile use at Yellowstone have prompted frequent legal challenges.

Language in the Senate fiscal 2007 Interior appropriations bill has sparked a debate over whether the federal courts or Congress should prescribe temporary limits for snowmobiles at national parks.

The language would extend a temporary rule limiting snowmobile use at Yellowstone and two other national parks for up to six more years if a court issues an injunction against a permanent rule. Defenders say the language is necessary to give businesses guidance in light of previous court injunctions of snowmobile rules at the three parks as well as the failure of the National Park Service to write a final rule.

For the past two years, Congress has passed a rider in spending bills allowing a temporary snowmobile rule for Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway to stay in place for an additional year while the Park Service works on a permanent rule.

The House-passed fiscal 2007 Interior spending bill again includes the language, which environmentalists oppose. But the Senate Appropriations Committee-passed version has language that gives the Park Service three more years to finalize a rule and allow the temporary rule to stay in place an additional three years if a court places an injunction on the permanent rule while it is being challenged.

The Park Service was going to issue a final rule by this winter, but that appears questionable as the agency has not yet issued a draft. "Without some type of stability, these businesses that operate there are really left in a particularly bad situation," said a spokeswoman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. "It's really an issue of fairness to them."

The intent of the language "is not to usurp the role of the courts in any way," the spokeswoman said, adding, "We have not heard any negative feedback right now to this that I'm aware of."

The Senate language "is overreaching" in that it "allows the courts to rule on the merits but it prescribes the remedy," said Abigail Dillen, a Bozeman, Mont.-based staff attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "I think it raises real policy concerns. You potentially have Congress running the parks ... It's certainly edging into the proper role of the courts."

The rules governing snowmobile use at Yellowstone have prompted frequent legal challenges. Environmental groups successfully challenged a Bush administration rule that allowed nearly 1,000 snowmobiles a day at the three parks and which replaced a Clinton-era rule that would have phased out the use of snowmobiles there.

A Montana court later issued an injunction against that Clinton plan after another court allowed it to stand until the Park Service issued a new rule. The Park Service then issued the temporary rule that currently stands and which Congress has extended for the past two years. That rule allows up to 860 snowmobiles to be used daily in the three parks.