After nearly 90 years of promoting the unbridled use of combustible engines to deliver tourists to the doorstep of America's natural treasures, the Park Service is moving to throttle down the impact of machines.
From the scenic highways of Yosemite to the breathtaking chasm of the Grand Canyon, the agency has an ambitious goal: To protect, and in some cases, restore, a lost sense of "natural quiet."
Experts say it represents one of the most profound policy shifts in the agency's storied history. Among the sweeping proposals:
*Plans were unveiled Monday to dramatically curtail auto traffic in Yosemite. The proposal would destroy existing parking lots and cut the number of in-park hotel rooms, replacing cars with buses and shifting demand for lodging to gateway communities.
*In Yellowstone, the agency proposes to ban snowmobiles, which are used by 70,000 winter visitors annually. Instead, visitors would ride over-the-snow coaches to reach trailheads for cross-country skiing and popular destinations like Old Faithful.
*At the Grand Canyon, the agency is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop a plan for managing aircraft noise here and at dozens of other parks. On the ground, the Grand Canyon also will soon ban autos, requiring that visitors ride electric buses or light rail, and then either walk or ride a bicycle to the congested South Rim.
*Next month, the Park Service proposes to implement a ban on personal watercraft, namely jet skis, at all but 21 of the system's 379 parks and recreation areas.
Although plans for regulating each motorized use are being hatched separately, Destry Jarvis, a senior policy adviser in the US Interior Department, says all are linked by a philosophical thread.
"What we are doing is returning to the very reason why parks were created, and [we're] seeking to protect the natural values that set them apart," he says. "Where laws are being broken, it will stop."
Follow the rules
Mr. Jarvis says a substantial body of evidence suggests that the Park Service has not complied with the agency's own rules. Most parks, he says, have been overwhelmed by the auto and by the advent of a variety of motorized fun-craft. If the Park Service does not act now, he adds, the agency may be unable to safeguard its crown-jewel preserves in the face of growing population pressure.
Yet critics say the Park Service is pandering to young and athletically fit visitors, and clamping down on vehicles will affect access for the handicapped and elderly.
"Flying over parts of the Grand Canyon is the most environmentally friendly way to see that wonderful sight," says Norm Freeman, who operates Scenic Airlines, which offers aerial tours. "I'm not suggesting that we throw all caution to the wind," he adds. "I am suggesting that there is room for all of us, and there are more-prudent methods than government intervention."
The Grand Canyon's overflight manager, Tom Hale, disagrees. The agency, he says, is charged by law with protecting a range of experiences, while safeguarding the park against activities that impair natural resources.
Hikers should be able to go into the canyon maw without encountering the whine of propellers or the sight of aircraft, he says. So the Grand Canyon is developing the first noise-management plan of its kind - in conjunction with the FAA and Indian tribes whose reservations abut the canyon.
"This is a unique place, and it needs ... a unique level of protection," Mr. Hale says.
Applying a similar level of protection in Yellowstone has met with resistance as well. Groups pushing to bar snowmobiles from the roadways of America's oldest park are just being selfish, critics say.
"They can have solitude in the winter, just like in the summer, by just traveling into the backcountry where the snowmobiles can't go," says Clark Collins, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a lobbying organization representing off-road-vehicle interests.
But conservationists counter that jet skis and snowmobiles run on two-stroke engines, which routinely spill one-third of their fuel, studies suggest. Two-stroke engines also generate huge amounts of noise and air pollution.
According to the 1916 Park Service Organic Act, which laid the foundation for protecting national parks, the language says "to conserve unimpaired." A recent lawsuit by the San Francisco-based Bluewater Network helped catalyze the Park Service's hard line on jet skis and snowmobiles.
"By limiting jet skis and snowmobiles,... the Park Service is taking a big step in the only direction it can really go once you consider the laws and executive orders it must follow," says Bob Ekey, northern Rockies regional director of The Wilderness Society. "The American public has made it clear it expects clean air and clean water and a quality experience in our national parks."
To the late Tom Watkins, a respected land-use-policy guru, quieting machines was a crucial part of this experience. The backcountry is aswim in "natural primordial melodies," he noted, from roaring waterfalls in Yosemite to the wind slipping through the Grand Canyon to the gurgle of geysers in Yellowstone.
Some of that solitude is now threatened. As John Quinley, the Park Service regional spokesman in Alaska, says, "Blasting up a blue-ribbon trout stream on a jet ski is not appropriate in a national park."
The snowmobile question has been particularly contentious. Yellowstone has received numerous complaints from tourists who say the noise ruined their vacations. While Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks experience the greatest volume of snowmobile use, some 46 other preserves also allow snowmobiles.
First snowmobiles, then ...
A month ago, 34 superintendents from the snowmobile parks attended a summit in Washington and agreed that the agency needs to do a better job of monitoring negative impacts. The Clinton administration is expected to make a major announcement soon, which would include the implementation of permanent prohibitions on snowmobiles, paralleling the proposed action on jet skis and other watercraft.
After that, the next target is all-terrain vehicles, such as dune buggies and four-wheelers. Action is expected this summer and follows in the wake of a court order in the Big Cypress Preserve to restrict all-terrain-vehicle use.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says the current problems are not a function of too many people in parks. Rather, he says, it is a function of too many machines - the infrastructure needed to service them is overwhelming the natural setting.
Ironically, Mr. Babbitt says, more people could travel through the big Western parks with less impact if the transportation systems were better organized. He acknowledges this is a hard sell - for generations of park visitors, cars are synonymous with park exploration.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society