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Snowmobile Flap: Yellowstone's Real Air Pollution

By Roger Koopman

March 20, 2004 -- Beware of those who would save us from ourselves. Good intentions or not. Most of the world's tyrannies were founded on good intentions, advanced by "enlightened" rulers whose claim to a higher moral calling qualified them to run other people's lives. 

Beware of those with master plans to save humanity, kept aloft by their own omnipotence. Logic will not stop them. Science will not phase them. Constitutional liberties are of little consequence. Environmentalists are the worst examples of this, because they envision themselves engaged in a holy cause. They are too busy rescuing the world to worry about the "details" of telling the truth or respecting people's rights.

Beware of those who would save us from ourselves, in the name of "saving the planet." Ask the good people of West Yellowstone - until recently, a bustling, smiling little western community. Their environmental saviors have just taken away their jobs, their businesses and their winter culture. Blinded by the piety of their "high ideals," these activists are driven by a spirit of self-righteousness that knows no bounds.

It began with a lawsuit and a shocking display of executive power, when federal bureaucrats decreed, in the final hours of the Clinton Administration, that all snowmobiling in the national parks would end in three years. The election of George W. Bush brought a partial reprieve in the form of a regulated use plan, limiting the number of snowmobiles per day, requiring mostly guided trips and banning two-stroke machines. 

Under the Bush Plan, 80 percent of the snowmobilers entering the park would be led around by licensed guides. Why? Because a handful of east coast bureaucrats decided that this was a more "acceptable" way to snowmobile. While there's nothing wrong with guided trips for those who prefer them, Americans, for the most part, spurn the idea of following along in orderly lines, stopping where the tour guides say. Only 5 percent of the public has chosen to use guides at the west entrance. But the Beltway Mentality is always the same: people can't be trusted with their own decisions; Washington must compel them to do the "right thing." 

Nevertheless, local operators geared up for the next season by putting guides on their payrolls and investing huge sums of money, replacing their 2-stroke machines with new 4-stroke models. In good faith, they were prepared to play by the new rules. So what happens? A distant federal judge changes the rules when the season opens, putting all national park snowmobiling back on the Clinton Road to Extinction. 

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone Park is a marvelous and uplifting form of family recreation. Yet for most Americans, if D.C. Circuit Judge Emmet Sullivan has his way, this experience will be lost forever. Sullivan, a liberal re-appointee from the Clinton era, wouldn't know a snowmobile from a snow cone, but when the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Fund for Animals went searching for a sympathetic jurist to reinstate the Clinton ban, his resume fit the agenda. In a decision driven by politics, not science, Sullivan all but destroyed the winter economies of the communities surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks - with an estimated loss of 938 jobs in Wyoming alone. At the same time, he essentially denied wintertime access to a publicly owned park. 

Wyoming federal Judge Clarence Brimmer's more recent ruling puts a temporary stay of the Sullivan decision, but West Yellowstone and the other gateway communities remain in legal limbo. Ordered by Brimmer to install a reasonable plan for the remainder of the season, the Park Service did the opposite, requiring that all snowmobiling henceforth be guided. Is it any wonder that fewer than 150 snowmobiles were entering the park on a typical day - down over 70 percent from a normal year? 

According to one snowmobile rental operator, the West Yellowstone economy "is in a free fall and hasn't hit bottom yet." He estimates close to 100 jobs lost this year alone, with dozens of businesses cutting back and many more shutting down. As one motel employee told me, snowmobiles allowed the town to finally develop a stable, year-around economy. The wintertime population grew from 300 to 1000 and the business community thrived. Now, an unholy alliance of environmental zealots, east coast politicians, career bureaucrats and judicial activists is in the process of driving West Yellowstone and other communities to their knees. They even have a back up plan in the form of House Bill 1130, introduced by New Jersey Democratic Congressman Rush Holt. The Holt legislation, co-sponsored by 153 of his blind-sighted colleagues, would achieve by act of Congress, the total ban demanded by the eco-activists. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) incidentally, had an interesting proposal. In a letter to Emmet Sullivan, he invited the judge to exchange his black robes for a snowmobile suit and spend a day touring the park in the company of the congressman. Rehberg, a staunch defender of West Yellowstone and the snowmobiling community, knows full well that Sullivan wouldn't be caught dead on a snow machine, but the point was well made. A judge who spends most of his life inside the Washington Beltway, is passing judgement on a recreational activity over which he hasn't the slightest practical knowledge or experience. Congressman Rehberg sees this for what it is: an outrageous display of judicial arrogance. 

The planet savers have been propagandizing against snowmobiles for many years now, promulgating lies that go unchallenged by the media. Journalists have become a conduit for strident rhetoric. It has been faithfully delivered to every corner of the nation, creating a specter of wholesale ecological destruction, including smog-like air pollution and assorted catastrophe. Apparently no one has noticed that in the six years the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has been monitoring air quality in the park, not once has the alleged pollution level from snowmobiles exceeded stringent federal or state standards.

Environmentalist park officials (who gave us the wildfires of '88) joined in the charade by ordering park employees to begin wearing gas masks at the entrance kiosks. Their "poignant" political commentary was designed entirely with the media in mind. Early morning of the first day (2/18/02), park officials staged a tax-funded 30-minute photo shoot for the national press corps. According to numerous observers, the rangers almost never wore the contraptions throughout the day (or since), but would obligingly put them back on for more photographs. 

The spectacle produced a media feeding frenzy. By the next day, alarming photos and news stories were seen on national TV and in major dailies throughout the country. Yet here, in part, is what went unreported:

1) The minor eye and throat irritation some rangers experienced was not peculiar to wintertime (snowmobile) usage as the stories implied, but were a year-around condition at the park gate kiosks, due primarily to air flow issues within the kiosks and the lack of communication systems to the outside. 

2) Two years before the gas mask circus, OSHA conducted an industrial hygiene study at the kiosks and found no major problems. They made several easily implemented recommendations that were ignored by the Park Service. Gas masks weren't one of them! No complaints have ever been filed with OSHA nor citations ever issued. 

3) The masks were themselves a total sham. The park purchased a type of respirator/cartridge combination that, according to experts, was completely inappropriate for its intended use, and would not filter any of the gases that allegedly were present. Apparently, the only consideration was that they looked good in front of the cameras. 

All the best data suggests that the snow machine banners don't have scientific leg to stand on. Yet politically correct causes never die. They just become more histrionic and outlandish. Crises are manufactured out of thin (unpolluted) air, and millions of Americans are taken in by it. Wanting to be good citizens, we believe what we hear and share in the concern, presuming that the evidence must exist to support the claims. Making frightening statements in the absence of facts would be unthinkable, we assume. Uh-huh. Right.

In truth, there is no air pollution problem created by snowmobiles. Summertime use of Yellowstone Park in cars, RVs and busses, represents twelve and a half times more vehicles per day than winter use on snowmobiles. According to the park's official figures, there were an average of 12,367 wheeled vehicles per day traveling through Yellowstone in the summer of 2003, versus 900 snowmobiles per day the following winter. When you consider that summer vehicles will traverse many more miles, the disparity in terms on total emissions is even greater. 

If we insist on banning snow machines, then cars and busses must go first, since their emissions, with their 4 to 8 cylinder engines, dwarfs that of the 2 cylinder snowmobiles. Ironically, the snow coaches that environmentalists want to herd us into produce 24 times more pollution than a snow sled, while carrying a maximum of 10 to 14 passengers. Assuming an average of 1.5 passengers per snowmobile, snow coaches are guilty of twice the per passenger fuel consumption of snowmobiles, and even with a full load of passengers, two and a half times the per person release of pollutants. 

Snow coaches also regularly fog up in cold weather, and experience frequent track-related breakdowns, often leaving passengers stranded for long periods. As one local authority asserts, snow coaches are at this point, not a viable technology. Ironically, the federal BAT mandate that requires private owners to use the "best available technology" on snow coaches, is waived in the case of the government (GSA) owned coaches, almost half of which use the oldest, noisiest and most polluting technology available. Their so-called "Bombardier" coaches are protected under a grandfather clause. You can draw your own conclusions about that. 

What about noise pollution claims? Again, consider the facts. Snowmobiles operate at a decibel level under 70. Your home garbage disposal puts out 80 decibels, and the Harley Davidsons that tour the park all summer produce in excess of 200 decibels. So where is the crisis? It exits only in the minds and the press releases of groups like the Fund for Animals and the GYC. 

Yellowstone is among 17 national parks that, for 40 years, Americans have enjoyed through the careful, on-road use of snowmobiles. "Sleds" provide a special glimpse of nature and an exhilarating open-air experience that could never be duplicated crammed into a snow coach that stops in designated parking lots. My family cherishes the times that we explored the park together on snowmobiles. The mental picture of those stair-steps of smiling faces will remain forever a fond memory. It seems to me, that's what our national park system is all about. Good stewardship - and maximum public enjoyment. 

The eco-extremists would end all that. They argue that our national parks should be "pristine, unspoiled places", free of human impact. But is that a realistic or even a desirable goal? Let's face it. Every human use will have some impact. If you introduce millions of visitors into a place like Yellowstone, there will be cumulatively, millions of little impacts. And millions of little smiles on millions of little faces. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Or managed wisely, can our national parks remain centers of public enjoyment, while fully preserved for the generations to come? 

Make no mistake. The planet savers, in their heart of hearts, believe all human activity is an encroachment on the natural world they worship. They may begin with snowmobiles, and from there to all motorized vehicles. But their ultimate goal is to protect public lands from public use, to include the establishment of buffer zones over millions of acres of private land as well. If they take away our wholesome pursuits and family fun in the process, well, that's just the price we must pay in submitting to their nobler calling. 

I do not know what kind of person it is who wakes up each morning and asks "whose life can I interfere with today? Whose business can I regulate? Whose fun can I outlaw? Whose property can I control? Whose community can I disrupt? Whose job can I eliminate? Why are they so drawn to power, and the authority to impose their will on others? It is so contrary to the American way of thinking. All of human history warns against "elitists" who play god with the human race. And yet, it seems they will always be among us. 

Beware of those who would save us from ourselves. Every time they open their mouths to deny us our liberties and the enjoyments of life, make them prove their case. You'll soon discover something. They can't.

Roger Koopman is founder and state president of the Bozeman-based Chamber of Private Enterprise. Roger also heads up the Montana Trustees of Freedom.


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War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. John Stuart Mills

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