For the first time since 1974, the sound of snowmobiles will be heard this winter in a national park in California. But it will hardly drown out the cries of protest from cross-country skiers and others who prefer to partake of nature's winter wonders at a slower, unmotorized pace.
Howard H. Chapman, Western regional director of the National Park Service, announced Dec. 14 authorization of a one-week-a-month test of snowmobiling on a road at Lassen National Park in northern California.
Proposals to permit snowmobiles in Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks were turned down, said Mr. Chapman.
The Lassen test, Chapman said ''will enable us to evaluate joint use by snowmobiles and cross-country skiers of the same road, after which a determination will be made about continuing the winter use.''
Environmentalists and cross-country skiers left no doubt about their objections to the plan during hearings at Fresno, Redding, and San Francisco in September. Fifty-eight organizations went on record against the admission of snowmobiles under any circumstances, while eight favored opening the parks to the vehicles. US Park Service mail was reported to be very heavy against the snowmobile test.
Lined up with those opposed to the snowmobile proposals were the superintendents of the three parks involved and Huey Johnson, California's director of resources.
But that opposition apparently was not enough to outweigh what some sources say is the real reason for approval of the Lassen plan - the desire of Ray Arnett, deputy secretary of the US Department of the Interior, to permit snowmobiling. Mr. Arnett was California director of fish and game when Ronald Reagan was governor.
Still, the opposition had some effect. Only one of the three parks will see snowmobiles this winter, and the route opened will be only a little over half the length proposed. The test route approved is 19 miles long, while 30 miles was proposed.
During the trial period, the Park Service says, snowmobiles will be allowed on unplowed park roads during the first seven days of each month, snow conditions permitting, until the road is opened to vehicles in mid-April. The route will not be groomed, and cross-country skiers will continue to use the road. Park rangers will patrol the route and monitor use by snowmobiles.
Parts of 24 national parks around the country -- including Grand Teton and Yellowstone in Wyoming and Acadia in Maine -- have been open to snowmobiles since 1979.