Park officials reverse course, will craft temporary use plan for ’08-’09

Officials at Yellowstone National Park reversed an earlier stand against crafting a temporary winter-use plan for the upcoming 2008-2009 season, saying they’d begin immediate work on an environmental assessment by early November, followed by a 15-day comment period.

It was a quick turnaround for Yellowstone officials: as recently as Monday Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis was telling a business groups in Cody that it was beyond her powers to come up with a temporary plan after U.S. Federal Judge Emmett G. Sullivan threw out a new plan akllowing up to 540 snowmobiles a day in the Park. In fact, she warned Old Faithful Snow Lodge and the Old Faithful area would be open only to snowshoers and cross-country skiiers or perhaps even shut down completely. (Since Mammoth Hot Springs is accessible via highway from Gardiner, it would be unaffected by the suspension of the winter plan.)

Park officials will proceed under the National Environmental Policy Act and perform an environmental assessment for snowmobiles and snow coaches.

Representatives from the groups bringing the lawsuit before Sullivan argued Lewis did indeed have the power to craft a temporary plan, an argument explictly rejected by Yellowstone officials. But with Congress unable to throw language allowing a temporary plan onto any bill and no other politically easy alternatives at hand, it was clear Lewis’s only choice was to bite the bullet and craft a temporary plan for the start of the winter season on December 15. While visitor levels at Old Faithful Snow Lodge and the Old Faithful area are significantly lower than during the summer season, there are still enough stakeholders — tourists, West Yellowstone businesses, tour operators — to force a decision from Lewis.

“The Park Service is providing clarity about what they can and will be doing,” Greater Yellowstone Coalition national parks program manager Amy McNamara told the Jackson Hole Daily. “I think this is good for the public and good for gateway communities.”

Look for a plan to basically allow the same number of four-stroke snowmobiles in the Park as last year’s daily average of 290; the limit of 540 snowmobiles per day was basically a conceptual one that didn’t come close to capping demand. Also, look for caps on snowcoaches to be far above what’s actually run through the Park in recent years

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