The Why Files The Why Files --

Parks or Playgrounds?
POSTED 30 DEC 2004

It's Christmas at Yellowstone
A blanket of snow folds over the mountains. Ice creaks atop the lakes. Old Faithful sighs and erupts. And the local fauna are getting rowdy, crashing down the wooded trails.

It's a herd of Homo sapiens. On snowmobiles.

In October, a federal judge in Wyoming ruled that Yellowstone National Park may allow as many as 720 snowmobiles a day -- triple the previous number -- overturning Clinton-era legislation phasing out snowmobiles in favor of quieter, multi-passenger snowcoaches.

snowmobilers ride past, guide in front
Snowmobiling is an increasingly popular way to see the national parks. But should it be? NPS photo

In Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Memorial Parkway, 140 snowmobiles a day are now allowed. To minimize the impacts, guidelines ensure that riders are confined to the same roads used by cars in the summer, and trips must be guided by professionals. In a statement issued to the media, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the ruling was "a common sense solution for snowmobile use that protects resources while also allowing appropriate access for enjoyment by the public."

But not everyone thinks so.

"This means that there will be high noise levels, degradation to air quality, and continued disruption of the visitor experience for other park visitors," says Tony Jewett, northern Rockies regional director with the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association, which recently listed Yellowstone as one of the ten most endangered national parks and has campaigned rabidly against the ruling. "You've got this smog that just sits over the roadways. And the noise shatters natural soundscapes."

Top 10 endangered parks:
Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas
Denali National Park, Alaska
Everglades National Park, Florida
Glacier National Park, Montana
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Ocmulgee National Monument, Georgia
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho

The National Parks Conservation Association released this list of the "10 Most Endangered National Parks" to bring attention to problems like pollution, invasive species and over-development. For details, go to

Jewett points to a 2000 National Park Service study of snowmobile use in Yellowstone which concluded that the activity threatened the park's air quality with unhealthy levels of pollutants like carbon monoxide and benzene. In additional studies, NPS researchers reported in 2003 and again in 2004 that using snowcoaches instead would protect park resources and human health. Some rangers in Yellowstone now reportedly don gas masks.

vintage wildlife poster with text"The park system was created to preserve the American natural and cultural past, so visitation by American citizens is important. But not to the extent that use impairs the parks' resources and harms human health," Jewett contends.

Background poster was created for the NYC Art Project, Works Projects Administration, [1936 - 1940]. Artist: Frank S. Nicholson, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection, [LC-USZC2-1015]

Is recess over?
The snowmobile scuffle is the latest chapter in a long history of competing interests within the national parks. Other play vs. preservation debates have centered on Jet Skis in National Park waterways and the construction of cell towers like the one that now hovers near Old Faithful. With some 388 parks, battlefields, historic sites, recreation areas, and monuments, there is a lot of room for disagreement about how America's "crown jewels" should be used, and how they can be best managed.

The politically-appointed leaders of the Interior Department and National Park Service have been applauded for allocating more money than ever -- $1.7 billion -- to the parks in the 2005 budget, a $95 million increase over the previous budget. But with a reported $6 billion maintenance backlog (See "National parks fast falling into disrepair" in the bibliography), the money disappears quickly. And as one New York Times editorial pointed out, the park budget is "not much more than a rounding error": one-tenth of one percent of the total federal budget of $2.4 trillion. Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and spokesman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, says the parks' panhandling days aren't over.

Wade and a handful of other former park service employees, concerned about money shortages and short-sighted management decisions, formed the coalition in May of 2004. The group sent a letter to President Bush and EPA leaders calling for more attention to park-based research and for policies grounded in science.

"We got absolutely no response," says Wade. Now with 365 members and counting, the group continues to lobby Congress and the administration.

Slopes of pine trees surround gentle, valley brook.
Yellowstone National Park. NPS photo

"It looks like 2005 budget is the largest that the National Park Service has ever received. But so much is taken off the top to fund things like the National Park Service's share of homeland security protection that the parks are actually left with less." In the end, 80 percent of parks in the NPS system were allocated less money in 2004 than in 2003, says Wade.

A glance at statistics published on the National Park Service webpages confirms Wade's woes. In a random scan of 10 national park budgets, The Why Files found that nine had smaller operating budgets in 2004 than in 2003. Eight of those nine had even less booty in 2002. (To check your favorite national park's budget, go here, select a park, and click on the "facts" link.)

The best way to make management decisions-especially when money is tight, says Wade-is to listen to the measured voice of science. Here at The Why Files, our ears tingled at the idea. So we did some eavesdropping.

Who's scared of science?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, feature writer for this story; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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