The House narrowly voted yesterday to let the Interior Department allow snowmobiles into Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
The Bush administration hailed the 224 to 198 vote, which came a year after the House had deadlocked on the issue. Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said this year's vote was "a more bipartisan approach and success because we've taken a balanced approach that marries strong science and sound management principles."
Yesterday's face-off over snowmobiles reflected a long-running feud over how to conduct winter tourism without doing too much environmental damage in the two popular national parks. In January 2001, the outgoing Clinton administration ordered a phaseout of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but President Bush promptly reversed that rule.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton boosted the number of snowmobile entries allowed each day, though she required that riders use a new model known as "BAT" machines, or "Best Available Technology." These snowmobiles use four-stroke gasoline engines that create less noise and pollution than the two-stroke engines that riders commonly use.
Last winter, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington responded to a challenge by environmentalists by striking down the Norton ruling, saying the Bush reversal was "completely politically driven and result oriented."
But while Sullivan reinstated the Clinton ban, snowmobile groups and communities surrounding the parks retaliated with their own lawsuit and, in February, U.S. District Judge Clarence A. Brimmer of Cheyenne, Wyo., issued a temporary restraining order instructing the parks to implement the Bush regulations.
Last summer, the amendment to ban snowmobiles came closer to victory but still failed on a tie vote of 210 to 210. During that vote, Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) initially voted in favor of the ban but then switched his vote after talking to his colleague, Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.).
Lawmakers engaged in a sharp debate last night, with opponents of the ban warning that such a move would destroy jobs and impede visitors from enjoying the parks during wintertime.
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) said the vehicles had become more environmentally friendly over the past five years, by lowering their particulate emissions by 97 percent. He compared the noise they produce to the sound made by vacuum cleaners or garbage disposals.
"Snowmobilers are just good ordinary citizens. Don't take this away from them," Oberstar said. "In Minnesota, we've got 11 months of winter and one month of rough sledding. Without snowmobiles and stretch pants we wouldn't have a life."
But the amendment's sponsors retorted that repeated studies have shown snowmobiles take a toll on the animals and their surroundings.
Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) said of Yellowstone, "It's a precious national treasure that deserves an extra level of protection."
Environmentalists scored a victory on the Interior bill when Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) won passage of an amendment that would prohibit any subsidized logging roads in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. While the House had voted before to cut federal spending on logging roads in national forests, this marked the first time it had approved an outright ban.
"We shouldn't subsidize the timber industry," Chabot said in an interview. He called the 222 to 205 vote "a big victory" that "surprised a lot of people."
Chabot said he was uncertain of whether it would pass in the Senate but added that he was encouraging activists to lobby the other chamber.