Debate Rages Over Use of Snowmobiles and Personal Watercraft in National Parks

A fierce battle is being waged across the country. On one side stands fun-loving recreationalists and  the industries that sell them their toys. On the other stands determined environmentalists, bent on protecting our National Park System. At the core of this debate lies an issue of recreational and environmental rights. Should the use of recreational vehicles such as jet skis, snowmobiles and ATVs be restricted in America’s national parks, or do these forms of recreation have a place in our public lands? AMSOIL INC. is sensitive to the conflicts that can arise between these two seemingly opposing points of view. In its unique position as an environmental company that produces motor oils and supports power racing and recreation, AMSOIL closely watches the turns of this debate. As a corporation, AMSOIL asks only that whatever decision is ultimately handed down be based on sound science, the results of up-to-date information and testing. The argument gained momentum in 2000 when Congress, under the Clinton Administration, passed a law mandating assessment and development of new rules governing the use of the vehicles in the nation’s park system. The law gave the National Park Service two years to conduct environmental impact studies and assessments of the parks before it went into effect. The National Park Service is the agency charged with oversight of more than 380 national parks. Of those, approximately 80 allow the use of motorized vehicles. Personal watercraft are allowed in 21 of those parks. Those parks are the center of the controversy. The contenders, big hitters in their respective fields, bring compelling arguments to the table.  

The Personal Watercraft Debate

On the side of the environment is Earth Island Institute and Bluewater Network of San Francisco. Bluewater is former affiliate of Earth Island, the powerful environmental agency that was responsible for the campaign that demands “dolphin friendly” tuna fishing practices and labels. That campaign successfully spread to nearly every tuna supplier worldwide. Vocal constituents care deeply about protecting and preserving the environment. They are joined by more than 60 other organizations that favor a ban on the use of all three types of recreational vehicles in all national parks. Passionate recreationalists are supported by the powerful Personal Watercraft Industry Association, an afiliate of the National Marine Manufacturers Association that represents the four major PWC manufacturers: Bombardier Recreational Products; Kawasaki Motors Corp. U.S.A.; Polaris Industries Inc. and Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. The American Watercraft Association and the International Snowmobile Association also are among their backers. Each side asks the National Park Service to be fairminded, scienti.c and evenhanded. Each claims the other exaggerates its position, is shortsighted and selfish. Bluewater cites damage to air and water quality, public safety, wildlife and visitor enjoyment of the parks as reasons to ban the watercraft throughout the system. It cites those same concerns regarding snowmobiles and ATVs. Recreationalists say statistics released by environmentalists are outdated. They cite improvements in watercraft in the past five years that reduced emissions by 75 percent and noise by 70 percent from 1998 models. Watercraft manufacturers have worked diligently in recent years to implement improved technology in twostroke engines, said Rob Schuetz, manager of public affairs for Bombardier in Sarasota, FL. Engines are semidirect injection, direct injection and straight carburetion. “That’s the progression of cleaning up emissions,” Schuetz said. “Your direct injection engines are as clean as the four strokes that are produced today, and even cleaner than some four strokes. We are making clean two-stroke direct injection engines today.” Caught in the middle, NPS says its focus is its mandate to preserve and protect the parks. It aims to design regulations accordingly, without bending to pressure from either side. “We are committed to protecting the National Park System’s cultural and natural resources, so if personal watercraft are allowed at a site, it may be restricted to certain areas of that site,” said NPS Deputy Director Randy Jones. The two-year grace period for NPS to conduct its studies and write rules for each of the 21 parks ended on April 22. Just ahead of that deadline, NPS announced that five parks would be permanently closed to personal watercraft use, effective April 22. The decision was based on environmental study and review that began under the 2000 federal law (36 CFR 3.24) However, the park service hadn’t completed assessments for all of the parks by the deadline, and eight more parks are now closed to personal watercraft. That leaves only eight parks in the entire park system that allow the use of the motorized watercraft. This is where the battle heats up. Environmentalists are calling the closures a coup, while recreationalists cry foul. “Environmental industry groups often push for environmental assessments to help agencies make the right decisions,” said Monita Fontaine, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association. “That’s all that’s being asked here. Complete the assessments, and then make an objective decision based on sound science. “It’s discriminatory to ban one type of motorboat based on prejudice instead of science.” Since the April deadline, another extension for the closures has been sought. 

House Natural Resources Committees

First a subcommittee then the full House Resources Committee passed HR 3853, a technical corrections bill that allows an extension of the closures until December 2004. The new language applies to the 21 parks specifically identified in the original rule, according to the PWIA. Of those, eight will continue to allow personal watercraft operation until the new deadline, and another eight sees an end to use of the watercraft beginning September 15, 2002, until the process is complete. “Though we believe it would have been fairer to delay the onset of bans in park units which had not completed or,  in some cases, had not begun the necessary public comment and environmental study process, we are heartened that the National Park Service has made a commitment to honor the National Environmental Policy Act procedures,” said Fontaine. (Listing of all parks affected under this ruling follows on this page.) It had yet to be voted on by the full House of Representatives at press time. 

The Snowmobile Debate:

The snowmobile debate focuses on two parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming. In its snowmobile position paper, Bluewater Network states: “Snowmobiles are a unique form of winter recreation. They are multiple impact machines which damage air and water quality, area wildlife, natural peace and quiet, public health and visitor safety. The specific problems associated with snowmobiles have resulted in calls for strict regulations or bans.” However, the most recent federal study of the impact of snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton show significant reduction in emissions levels associated with use of new technology snowmobiles and provides no justification for banning the popular machines, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA). The organization says the environmentalists refuse to acknowledge strides in technology made by its members, Arctic Cat, Inc., Bombardier Inc., Polaris Industries and Yamaha Motor Corporation. “The latest study by the NPS shows that existing snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks has not violated any ambient clean air standards,” said Ed Klim, president of ISMA. “What’s more, it shows that the new technology snowmobiles reduce emissions by 70 percent. So anyone who says the new study reveals nothing new simply hasn’t read it.” The Bluewater Network also states: “Snowmobile use is inherently incompatible with the National Park System, as well as other wilderness areas. The adverse impacts of snowmobiles on air, water, vegetation, wildlife, and public safety demonstrate that there are some areas in which snowmobiles do not belong. Because snowmobiles are incompatible with the very mandates, missions and concepts of wilderness areas, a full ban on the use of snowmobiles, except in case of emergency vehicles, search and rescue vehicles, and agency use, is essential.” Snowmobiles already are limited to the use of groomed portions of the road system in less than one percent of the two million acres in the two parks. More than 1.5 million autos, buses, trucks, SUVs and motorcycles use these same roads each spring, summer and fall. “Snowmobilers merely want to preserve winter access to a very limited part of the great National Parks,” said Terry Manning, president of the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association. “This is what we do out West in the wintertime.” As with the personal watercraft, manufacturers of snowmobiles are using better technology to provide cleaner burning engines to reduce emissions, and develop quieter motors. The manufacturers also recommend safe practices training and age  restrictions for operation to reduce accidents. The battle continues, and the NPS has issued a preliminary Supplemental Environmental Impact Study on its Website for public comment. It is mandated to issue the final supplemental EIS on Oct. 15, 2002, with a final decision and new rule to be published by Nov. 15, 2002.