updated 11/18/2008 5:33:27 PM ET 2008-11-18T22:33:27

Yellowstone National Park will let in 720 snowmobiles a day — the same as the past three winters — while officials try to form a long-term access plan amid challenges from recreational users and conservationists.

Park spokesman Al Nash said administrators decided to revert to the old temporary plan so they could dive immediately into developing a long-term solution.

The decision marked the latest turn in a decades-long struggle between snowmobile advocates, who want more recreational access, and conservation groups that say too many of the machines degrade the park's natural beauty.

This year in particular has been wrought with inconsistent legal rulings.

In September, U.S. District Judge Andrew Sullivan in Washington, D.C. voiced concern that an earlier park proposal to allow 540 machines daily would cause air pollution and disturb wildlife. He threw out that plan and told the park service to come up with a new one.

In response, park administrators said Nov. 3 that they planned to allow 318 snowmobiles daily while they worked on a long-term plan.

Monday's sudden reversal of that decision followed a second federal judge's ruling in a separate lawsuit.

District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Wyoming ruled Nov. 7 that the park could allow 720 snowmobiles daily, a figure in place since 2004 that park officials reluctantly decided on for the 2008 season.

"Our intent with the temporary plan was to be open," and complying with the judge's order accomplishes that, Nash said. "We need to shift our focus to that long term."

Monday's announcement was welcomed in Wyoming, where residents and many elected officials have fought bitterly to preserve snowmobile access. State officials have said up to 950 of the machines should be allowed daily.

"Our view is the parks are there for the people to experience," said Jay Jerde with the Wyoming Attorney General's office. "They should be allowed into the park as long as that access doesn't cause unacceptable impacts."

Conservationists argued that too many of the machines degrade the park's natural beauty.

"They've totally done a U-turn," said Amy McNamara with the Bozeman, Mont.-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "It's incredibly disappointing. They were en route to putting a decision in place that would have sent them in the right direction."

Yellowstone officials have said previously that it could take up to three years to come up with a long-term plan. Nash said that timeline is no longer so clear, but he declined to give a more likely schedule.

The 2008 winter season begins Dec. 15.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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