House Fights Over Snowmobiles in Yellowstone, Grand Teton

A wrestling match between environmentalists and the recreation industry over whether snowmobiles (search) should be banned from Yellowstone (search) and Grand Teton (search) national parks has once again found its way to the House.

The Republican-run chamber is expected to vote Thursday on the dispute, which pits rules President Bush has issued against more stringent Clinton administration plans and has become a legal fight that has ricocheted among several federal courts.

Because the two parks are among the country's most renowned, the battle has become a high-profile, election-year test of wills in which snowmobile makers and recreation outfitters have faced off against environmental groups. Yellowstone and Grand Teton lie mostly in northwestern Wyoming.

The fight is one of several that have broken out as the House works its way through a $19.5 billion measure financing the Interior Department and other cultural and land programs for 2005.

In votes Wednesday, the House by 222-205 approved an amendment by Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, barring construction of new taxpayer-financed timber roads in Alaska's Tongass National Forest next year. The 17 million-acre forest, the nation's largest and one of its most pristine, is a frequent battlefield between environmental groups and Alaska's struggling logging industry.

The chamber also approved an amendment by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., adding $10 million to the National Endowment for the Arts' budget, bringing its total to $131 million.

Bush wanted $139 million for the agency. But lawmakers transferred those extra dollars -- and nearly $700 million in other Bush initiatives, like clean coal power plants and parkland acquisition -- to congressional priorities like fighting wildfires.

The underlying bill is $300 million below this year's level. The Senate has yet to write its version of the legislation.

The bill would provide $2.6 billion for fighting wildfires in 2005, nearly 10 percent over this year's levels. Beyond that, the bill would create $500 million contingency funds for both this year and next for battling the blazes, which are off to an early start this spring in the West.

With many national parks curtailing hours and hiring, it would provide $1.7 billion for park operations, a nearly 5 percent increase that Republicans defended but Democrats called insufficient.

In 2000, President Clinton imposed a plan to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway that connects them. The vehicles were to be barred completely by this coming winter, replaced by bus-like snow coaches.

Last year, the Bush administration decided to replace the Clinton plan with rules allowing snowmobiling, but only with vehicles that have quieter and cleaner engines.

Instead of adhering to a daily limit of 493 snowmobiles in Yellowstone that the Clinton plan would have imposed for this past winter, the National Park Service (search) allowed 780 per day.

The House voted last year against barring snowmobiles in the park by 210-210 -- a vote shy of what proponents of a ban needed to prevail.

Snowmobiling opponents argue that the vehicles pollute the parks, are noisy and endanger wildlife. Supporters say the ban would cause economic harm to communities near the parks, and ignores that the cleaner snowmobiles cause less pollution.