The Obama administration on Thursday proposed adopting a Bush-era plan to halve the number of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone National Park. The earlier plan followed a judge's ruling that allowing 720 snowmobiles a day was excessive.
The proposal would allow 318 snowmobiles and 78 multi-passenger snowcoaches daily for the next two winters.
The question of how many snowmobiles are appropriate for the nation's first national park has sparked political and legal skirmishing since the Clinton administration, when an outright ban was proposed.
Power shifts in Washington and federal lawsuits from environmentalists and snowmobile advocates have led to constantly changing rules for the machines — a factor that advocates contend has dampened snowmobiler interest in Yellowstone.
The prior cap of 720 machines was never reached. An average of 205 snowmobiles daily entered the park in 2008-09, when the busiest day of the season saw only 426 of the machines.
Yellowstone straddles the borders of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. During winter months, the park interior is largely inaccessible except to snowmachines and ambitious skiers and snowshoers.
"The proposed rule would allow continued access to the park in winter, while ensuring the protection of this national treasure and its wildlife," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
During the two years the rule would be in effect, Salazar's agency would conduct an environmental analysis and try again to craft a permanent snowmobile cap.
Salazar spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the secretary "wants to make sure that the best science available is being used."
The public will be invited to weigh in during a 45-day comment period.
During the 1990s, the average annual peak for snowmobiles in the park was 1,400 machines. That's more than four times the administration's proposal.
Some snowmobile advocates viewed Thursday's announcement as the first step toward pushing them out of the park altogether.
"There's a strong push out there from a radical few that won't stop until there's no winter use" by snowmobiles, said Jeff Moberg, president of the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association.
Moberg added that restrictions on the machines fail to take account of technological advances that have sharply cut snowmobile pollution. Those technologies have been required for snowmobiles entering the park for the last several years, said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.
The head of a group of retired park employees that has pushed for tighter snowmobile restrictions called Thursday's announcement "a step in the right direction."
"It's reasonable to expect they could phase them out from 318 over a two or three year period to zero," said Bill Wade with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
Last year brought competing rulings on the matter from two U.S. District Court judges.
In September, Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., rejected a National Park Service plan to allow 540 snowmobiles daily into Yellowstone.
Siding with environmental groups who had sued over the plan, Sullivan said that many machines would cause too much noise and disturb the park's wildlife. In response, the National Park Service came up with a new plan to allow 318 machines — the same plan the administration now wants to revive.
Less than two months later, Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne, Wyo., ruled in a separate lawsuit filed by snowmobile advocates that 720 was the right figure while a long-term plan was crafted. That was consistent with what the park permitted for the previous several years.