The Obama administration is proposing to allow up to 318 snowmobiles per day into Yellowstone National Park for the next two winters, cutting by more than half the 720 allowed last winter by the Bush administration.
The move effectively restores a temporary plan that Bush officials scrapped last year after interpreting a judge's ruling as requiring the 720-per-day rule to be reinstated instead.
The National Park Service will use the next two years to come up with a long-term solution to the contentious issue, it said.
In a notice set for publication tomorrow in the Federal Register, the service says it is reopening a public comment period on a 318-per-day plan that never went into effect due to the legal controversies.
"The NPS has now determined that there is sufficient time to provide for an additional 45-day comment period to ensure that the public has had an opportunity for review and comment," the notice says.
The Park Service intends for final rules to be published by Nov. 15, to be in effect for the winter season that starts Dec. 15.
The rule would be in effect through the end of the 2010-2011 winter season. During that time, the agency said it will work with "all interested parties" to complete a new environmental impact statement, a new long-term plan and permanent regulations governing winter use in Yellowstone.
The agency said it will consider all comments on the issue received during the last public comment period in November and any received since then.
Up to 720 snowmobiles per day were allowed in Yellowstone this past winter. That controversial decision, made in December, came after months of uncertainty and changing numbers resulting from dueling lawsuits and court rulings.
Under the Bush administration, the Park Service proposed allowing 540 snowmobiles per day into the park. But a federal judge in Washington, D.C., threw out that plan in September 2008, citing the emissions and noise impacts on the park, and ordered the agency to come up with a new plan. The agency then proposed a plan early last November -- which the agency now is reopening for comments -- to allow up to 318 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone for three winters.
But a federal judge in Wyoming, ruling on a separate lawsuit on the same issue, said the Park Service should reinstate an expired previous rule until it could put in place an acceptable new one, as ordered by the Washington judge.
The Park Service had already published an environmental assessment and a proposed rule that would have allowed the 318 limit to go into effect by Dec. 15, 2008. But the agency interpreted the Wyoming judge's ruling as an order to put that process on the back burner and instead reinstated the expired 2004 rule. That rule established a temporary, three-year plan allowing up to 720 commercially guided snowmobiles and up to 78 multipassenger snowcoaches per day. It had expired at the end of the 2006-07 winter season.
The agency said it would continue to analyze public comments received on the 318-limit plan in order to guide a long-term planning process.
At the time, the Park Service said the 720-limit rule would be in effect last winter -- and remain in effect until the Park Service promulgated an acceptable rule to take its place.
That higher limit will not be reached most days. Last winter an average of about 205 snowmobiles a day entered Yellowstone, the agency said, down from 294 a day the previous winter. The park's peak day last winter was Dec. 29, when 426 snowmobiles entered the park.
Click here to read the Federal Register notice.