updated 6/18/2004 10:44:19 AM ET 2004-06-18T14:44:19

The House voted Thursday to let snowmobiles continue using Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as the recreation industry dealt a defeat to environmentalists.

By 224-198, the chamber beat back an effort to ban the vehicles by lawmakers who said the machines cause pollution and noise, and pose a danger to the parks’ wildlife.

“Yellowstone National Park is a unique environment, a precious national treasure that deserves an extra level of protection,” said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., one of the sponsors.

Snowmobile advocates — backed by snowmobile manufacturers and tourism interests — said a ban would devastate the local economy around the parks, which lie mostly in northwestern Wyoming. They also said that despite their opponents’ assertions, new snowmobiles are cleaner and quieter than older models.

“They come in and say, ‘We’re going to cut you in half. We’re taking half your income away,”’ Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., said of those supporting the ban. “Our communities can’t withstand that.”

The snowmobiling issue has mushroomed into a legal dispute that federal courts have yet to untangle. Because the two parks are among the country’s most renowned, the battle has also became an election-year symbol of a conflict frequently joined in Congress between environmental and economic interests.

The fight came as the House worked its way through a $19.5 billion measure financing the Interior Department and other land and cultural programs for next year. The overall bill, which passed by 334-86, would provide less than President Bush proposed for clean energy projects and adding land to parks, but more than he wanted for fighting wildfires that have already flared in the West.

In other battles:

  • Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., lost a bid to prohibit the National Park Service from killing any bison from Yellowstone’s herd by a 215-202 vote. Some animals from that herd, which numbers about 3,700, are killed each winter after leaving the park either to prevent the spread of disease or because they could not be coaxed back inside.
  • The House rejected, 267-152, a proposal by Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., to force the government to sell some oil from its strategic petroleum reserve in an effort to drive down spiking gasoline prices.

Snowmobile ban rejected in 2003
Last year, the House rejected a proposed snowmobile ban in the two parks by 210-210, just shy of the majority those seeking to bar the vehicles needed.

In 2000, President Clinton imposed a plan to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway that connects them. The vehicles were to be barred completely by this coming winter and replaced by snow coaches that could carry groups of people into the parks.

Last year, the Bush administration decided to replace the Clinton plan with rules allowing snowmobiling, though with vehicles that are supposed to have quieter and cleaner engines.

Instead of adhering to a daily limit of 493 snowmobiles in Yellowstone that the Clinton plan would have imposed for this past winter, the National Park Service allowed 780 per day.

The Senate has yet to craft its Interior Department bill.

Snowmobile and stretch pants’
With many lawmakers trying to bar snowmobiles in the parks from the East, Thursday’s debate took on regional tones.

“Many of the radical environmentalists pushing for this ban would like to put all of the West into a national park,” said Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo.

And Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said that during bitter stretches of winter, “Without the snowmobile and stretch pants, we don’t have a life” in parts of the West.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., compared snowmobiles in parks to running chainsaws in the House during debate, saying, “If there’s something that’s not natural in a national park, it’s snowmobiles.”

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