Yellowstone, Snowmobiles, and Confusion: What Has the NPS Done For You Lately? The Ongoing Battle Over Fund for Animals v. Norton

Comment by Kimberly Ratliff, Former Staff Member; originally appeared in JNREL Vol. 19 No. 2

Abstract by: Matt Cocanougher, Staff Member

A war has been waged in the western United States between the snowmobile industry and conservation groups regarding the use of snowmobiles in national parks, specifically Yellowstone National Park. Interestingly, by handing down opposing decisions, two federal courts have allowed battles to be won by both sides. This has created a great amount of confusion for the conservation groups as well as the snowmobile industry. Additionally, the party charged with putting an end to the confusion, the National Parks Service ("NPS"), played an important role in causing the uncertainty in the first place.

Fund for Animals v. Norton, 294 F. Supp. 2d 92 (D.D.C. 2003), was a suit brought by numerous environmental organizations in the Washington D.C. circuit court to challenge the NPS's decision to allow snowmobile use at Yellowstone National Park. The events leading up to this case began in 1997 after some environmental problems arose because of the use of snowmobiles. The NPS responded to a suit by environmental groups which addressed these problems by completing an Environmental Impact Statement in 1998 and issuing a Finding of No Significant Impact, while vowing to continue studying the environmental impacts. Later, in 2001, the NPS decided on the Snowcoach Rule, which would phase out snowmobiles by the 2003-2004 seasons and replace them with mass transit snowcoaches. However, two years after the Snowcoach Rule was decided upon, the NPS completely changed its mind and decided to allow 950 snowmobiles to access Yellowstone daily, mandating that the snowmobiles conform with the best available technology standards.

After the NPS decision reversing its earlier Snowcoach Rule, Fund for Animals and other environmental organizations sued in the D.C. court based on the argument that the 2003 change of the rule was arbitrary and capricious, which violated the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"). The D.C. court agreed that the 2003 rule was arbitrary and capricious and issued an order reinstating the 2001 decision and allowing the NPS to promulgate new rules to address the matter.

While it seems as though this should be the end of the story, it is not. After the D.C. decision, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and the state of Wyoming brought suit to reopen their pending case challenging the 2001 Snowcoach Rule in Int'l Snowmobile Mfr. Ass'n v. Norton, 304 F. Supp. 2d 1278 (D. Wyo. 2004). Because the Wyoming District Court found that the NPS had not spent an adequate amount of time reviewing the environmental consequences of the Snowcoach Rule, it found that the Rule was invalid. This decision, therefore, ordered the NPS to restore the status quo of no restrictions on snowmobiles.

As a result of both of these cases, the environmental groups involved in the first D.C. case went back to the D.C. court to ask to resolve these inconsistent decisions. The D.C. court ruled that the NPS now has to create a new "rule making process in a manner consistent with, and addressing the concerns" of the Wyoming District Court. Funds for Animals v. Norton, 323 F. Supp. 2d 7, 10 (D.D.C. 2004). Therefore, the NPS has a very difficult task ahead of it of addressing the issues of both the snowmobile industry and environmental groups while keeping in mind the decisions issued in these two cases.