Gale Norton's Yellowstone snow job

Published February 17, 2005 9:31PM (EST)

This week, Interior Secretary Gale Norton took a 150-mile, three-day snowmobile trip through Yellowstone National Park. During the photo-op tour, she showed unqualified support for the noisy, exhaust-puffing machines.

The New York Times reported that she turned up her nose at the snow coach, a more environmentally friendly alternative to snowmobiles which has gained in popularity: "Norton gave only faint praise to the snowmobile's competition. Emerging from a short ride in a van-like snow coach, the mode of transport that is becoming an increasingly robust rival for snowmobile outfitters at the edges of the park, she said, 'This is a much more ordinary kind of experience,' adding, 'it's not as special as a snowmobile.'

"After an election in which President Bush's campaign reached out to snowmobile enthusiasts and in the midst of dueling legal challenges to two conflicting National Park Service decisions on whether to permit snowmobiles in the park, Norton's drawn-out photo opportunity underscored the similar interests of the multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation industry and the Bush administration's Interior Department."

While the Times notes that the bison that the secretary passed along the way "showed no discernible reaction," a former Yellowstone ranger who works for Bluewater Network in San Francisco, an environmental group that's suing the feds over the use of snowmobiles in the park, says the machines are contributing to bison mortality.

"Just because an animal is standing there doesn't mean it's not being impacted by the use," says Sean Smith, public lands director for Bluewater Network. Bison sometimes wander out of the park into Montana on trails that the park service grooms for snowmobile use. The fear of a disease that the bison can carry -- which can spread to cattle -- means that the state of Montana sends them to slaughter.

"They're killing these animals that belong to all of us," says Smith. And that doesn't just hurt the bison, he says; it has impacts on grizzlies and wolves, both of which eat them. In the spring, as the snow and ice melts, grizzlies feed on the defrosting carcasses of bison that have died during the winter. "It's an important food source that's being removed," says Smith.

Smith also marvels at the Interior Secretary's cheerleading for the recreational sporting industry.

"It's amazing to see how much effort the Department of the Interior is putting into promoting snowmobiling," he says. "That isn't their job. Their job is to protect and conserve our natural resources. The Park Service knows for a fact that snowmobiles and trail grooming damage the resource. They've studied it for 10 or 15 years, but they're going to allow it to continue anyway, and that's almost unprecedented in Park Service history."

"The science supports removing these machines," Smith adds. "The public wants it, the law requires it, and [Bush's interior department] is going to do the exact opposite."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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