WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is weighing a proposal from snowmobile manufacturers that could eventually result in lifting the ban on snowmobiling at several Western national parks.
"Ultimately, the recreational use of snowmobiles in our national parks will only be permitted if the environment and the values of our parks are protected," said Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "It's too soon, but we're moving along that path."
The National Park Service received the proposal Monday as part of settlement talks with the International Snowmobile Manufacturers' Association, which filed a lawsuit in December seeking to overturn the Clinton administration's ban on recreational snowmobiling to reduce pollution and noise.
The proposal being studied by attorneys for the Interior and Justice departments calls for the Park Service to do another environmental impact statement by the end of 2002. Any settlement agreement would have to be approved by U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne, Wyo.
The Park Service cited harmful environmental effects a year ago, when it banned snowmobiles in most national parks. A federal study found that banning them at the end of 2002 year could cost businesses in the region $16.5 million annually and about 400 jobs.
The snowmobile ban, approved in January on the day former President Clinton left office, affects Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, an 82-mile corridor linking the two parks.
Each winter, about 62,000 snowmobilers visit Yellowstone, which is comprised of 2.2 million acres in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The ban won the backing of the Bush White House in April, although the administration said at the time it still hoped an agreement could be reached to allow "limited recreational use" of snowmobiles in the parks.
Under the ban, the approximately 1,000 snowmobiles a day allowed in the parks would be cut to half that by the December-to-March snowmobiling season starting at the end of 2002. All snowmobiles would be banned by the winter of 2003-2004.
"All we've ever wanted is an honest (environmental impact study)," said Ed Klim, president of the Lansing, Mich.-based International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association. "We've always been hopeful that an honest (study) would allow reasonable and regulated snowmobiling to occur."
Klim said his group hopes to come up with an alternative that might limit the number of snowmobiles allowed annually in the three parks to roughly 800 or 900 daily, about the average number that have visited the past five years.