Snowmobile curbs at Yellowstone Park anger businesses

The bison and the bears may be blissfully unaware but the peace of Yellowstone National Park has been abruptly pierced this Christmas by angry arguments over access to its pristine forests and meadows for snowmobile enthusiasts and the noisy machines that they ride.

The shouting began last week when a judge in Washington DC threw out plans approved by the Bush administration and the National Parks Service to allow snowmobiles into the park in limited numbers and on condition they are newer, less polluting, models.

In his ruling, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered the parks service to reinstate a more restrictive solution drawn up by the administration of Bill Clinton. It envisaged giving permits to fewer snowmobile riders this year and aims for a total ban.

When the season for snowmobiles officially opened last Wednesday, there was confusion at the gateways to the park in Wyoming and Montana. The Bush plan would have allowed 950 of the machines to enter the gates every day, so long as they followed prepared trails. But the Clinton blueprint allows less than half that number in and only if they are part of approved guided tours.

Much worse for the snowmobile businesses that ring the park is what would come next year under the Clinton blueprint. Individual snowmobiles will be barred from its territory and, instead, tourists will be directed to a mass-transit alternative - snowcoaches that take passengers down the trails in large groups.

Snowmobiling has been a popular winter pastime in Yellowstone and the adjacent Grand Teton Park since the early 1960s. But pressure from environmental groups, who argued the noise and pollution was harming animal habitats, finally led to the Clinton-inspired plan in 1999.

The Bush White House has a long record of revisiting the environmental initiatives of President Clinton, however. It sanctioned a more relaxed approach - with the support of the park service itself - on the ground that the newest generation of snowmobiles is less polluting and quieter.

That reasoning was dismissed by Judge Sullivan, who said the park service's study had been flawed and "completely politically driven" and the Clinton plan stood.

The mayor of West Yellowstone, Jerry Johnson, who has a snowmobile rental business, said that the quick change was "going to be devastating to our economy, no doubt about it".

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