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Judge rejects park snowmobile ban

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A federal judge Friday struck down a Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks — a move expected to leave the parks open to the vehicles for at least the next three winters.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer ruled that the ban — aimed at preventing air and noise pollution and protecting wildlife — was imposed without adequate participation from the public and the states of Montana and Wyoming.

The 2001 rule was "the product of a prejudged, political decision to ban snowmobiles from all the national parks," Brimmer said.

National Park Service officials are already drafting new rules for the next three winters. The tentative plans call for up to 720 guided snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone this winter, and 140 per day in Grand Teton and the highway that connects the two parks.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Friday that she expected Brimmer's ruling and her agency will continue working toward a "common sense solution" for snowmobile use.

"We are committed to allowing responsible winter access through cleaner operating . . . machines, restricting snowmobiles to the same paved roads that are used by vehicles in the summer months," she said in a written statement. "Visitors and wildlife will remain under the watchful eye of experienced guides."

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal praised the judge's decision, saying it recognized "the fundamentally unfair nature of the ban and ensured that citizens will get to see their national park."

Clyde Seely, a business owner in West Yellowstone, agreed.

"Obviously, we're very pleased with the ruling. We think it's right," Seely said. "And we are confident that the testing over the next three years will show snowmobiles using the new technology will not be detrimental to the park."

But Abigail Dillen, an attorney for some of the conservation groups that sued, said she was disappointed and that the groups were studying their legal options.

Curt Kennedy, director of public lands for the Utah Snowmobile Association, said that some of Utah's 33,000 snowmobile owners want to make sure access is preserved to public lands.

"We don't want to see restrictive relations come into place because of precedents set in Yellowstone, which is why this is such a big issue here in Utah and the 27 other states in the snowbelt and 10 provinces in Canada," Kennedy said.

Before the Clinton-era ban could take full effect, the Bush administration issued permissive new rules allowing Yellowstone to have up to 950 snowmobiles and Grand Teton up to 190.

But a federal judge in Washington, D.C., overturned the Bush rules and reinstated the Clinton ban for the remainder of the winter of 2003-04. Brimmer, who is based in Cheyenne, then filed an injunction preventing the Clinton rules from taking effect.