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Motorized Vehicle Management

For many years, airplane overflights have been a contentious issue in US National Parks. Since 1998, however, personal motorized recreation has also been under increasing scrutiny. Snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, and jetskis have all been limited by new management plans developed by NPS, US Forest Service, BLM, and state agencies. Unlike the powerful corporate and chamber of commerce players in the air tour industry, the largely individual users of personal vehicles have been struggling to find the sort of institutional leverage that has kept planes and helicoptors from being shut out of parks.

The main reason that these issues have come to a head is the increasing popularity of all forms of personal recreational vehicles. As their numbers have increased, visitors who seek "quiet use" have raised their voices in protest. In addition, newer, more powerful vehicles, especially in the snowmobile industry, have opened up larger and more rugged backcountry areas to motorized use.

In the late 1990s, advocates of both quiet use and motorized recreation tended to take up entrenched positions that are in full opposition: bans on motorized vehicles versus unbridled access to public lands. Meanwhile, land managers scrambled to adapt to changing technologies and increased pressure from both sides of the issue. Over the past several years, there has been a marked increase in constructive dialogue about how to create opportunities for motorized recreation while maintaining the sense of solitude and quiet in large tracts of wild lands.

[See AEI Special Report: OHV Travel Management Planning]

[See AEI Special Report: Yellowstone Winter Use Plan]


In response to years of complaints by hikers, National Parks are beginning to implement a new generation of policies that limit the noise intrusions of airborne sight-seeing flights.

Grand Canyon

On March 28, 2000, President Clinton announced new FAA rules governing air tour operators in the Grand Canyon. Flight-free zones were increased from 45% to 75% of the park (though of course "noise free" zones will be far smaller, as sound travels for miles into the "flight-free" zones). For the first time, the number of flights will be limited; they are now capped at present levels (90,000 flights annually).

On March 25, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration added new restrictions, eliminating two flight paths that follow the Colorado River from Las Vegas to the canyon.

Still, debate rages. On one side, the Grand Canyon Trust notes that the new rules still fall far short of the congressional mandate to restore 50% of the canyon to natural quiet. The east end of the canyon remains the most heavily used by both ground-based tourists and flight operators. Meanwhile, the US Air Tour Association complained that the new restrictions would cause "irreparable harm" to the tour operators by eliminating routes along "the stuff that's pretty." Source: High Country News [WEBSITE]

In 2004, the National Park Service and FAA began an intensive new process aimed at involving local and national stakeholders in the creation of a management plan that will fulfill the mandate to substantially restore natural quiet in the Grand Canyon. The DOI/NPS and FAA have engaged the independent and impartial services of the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution to facilitate interagency collaboration with effective and meaningful stakeholder involvement.

The current process will utilize a noise-mapping effort, based on both measured noise and calculated sound propagation models. The current plannning is aimed at maintaining natural quiet in 50 percent of the park for 75 to 100 percent of every day. This leaves half the park free for more regular overflights.

In early 2006, the NPS announced a scoping phase for the long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement that will set final air tour rules for the park. This process is supposed to be complete by the spring of 2008. Public meetings are being held in Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Las Vegas during February, and comments will be accepted through April 27.
Arizona Daily Sun article 1/29/06: [READ ARTICLE]
Nattional Park Service Press Release - Announcing the EIS scoping process 1/25/06:

NPS Grand Canyon Overflights website [WEBSITE]

FAA Grand Canyon Overflights website - Has extensive set of documents presented in public meetings up to this point [WEBSITE]

US Institute Website [WEBSITE]

Two excellent papers on NPS air tour management, both presented at the Internoise 2009 conference:
Nick Miller, Setting limits for acceptable noise in National Parks [VIEW PDF]
Dick Hingson, Grand Canyon vs. the soundscape from nowhere [VIEW PDF]

National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000

This Act calls for the FAA and NPS to work together to develop air tour management plans for any National Park that has commercial air tours operating over its holdings. As of the passage of the act, this would apply to approximately 50 of the Park Services over 300 units (including parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, and national seashores). In addition to initiating the develoment of ATMPs for parks with air tours, the Act banned air tours in Rocky Mountain National Park, exempted Alaskan parks from the requirements, and also left the Grand Canyon process, already ongoing, unaffected.

In November 2002, the Final Rule governing the development of Air Tour Management Plans (ATMPs) was released, and the ATMP process was initiated in two Hawaiian parks. In 2004, ATMPs were begun in Mount Rushmore National Monument, Badlands National Park, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The slow implementation of the provisions of the act has caused some consternation among environmental advocates, though the FAA claims to be working diligently toward fulfilling the Act's requirements. Interested individuals can register on the FAA ATMP site to be kept informed about ATMP developments in parks of interest. However, it should be noted that the FAA is moving very slowly in developing ATMPs, much to the frustration of both park advocates and some NPS staff.

In the summer of 2009, the ATMP process began in Death Valley National Park, where several air tour operators are already offering helicopter tours, and a local airport attracts day up to 30 flights per day of day visitors.

More Info:
FAA Air Tour Management Plan website [WEBSITE]

National Parks Overflights Advisory Group (NPOAG) [WEB PAGE]

Unfriendly Skies: The Threat of Military Overflights to National Wildlife Refuges - A report from the Defenders of Wildlife. Source: Defenders of Wildlife, 2000 [WEBSITE]


Jetskis and pleasure boats

In 1999, the National Park Service announced its first restrictions on jet skis. Sixty six of the 87 bodies of water under Park Service jurisdiction have since banned jetskis, including Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks and most National Recreation Areas and National Seashores. "Our major concern is visitor conflict, but we're not going to entirely close them out of areas where they are a major recreational activity," said Chip Davis, Park Service regulations program manager.

In April of 2001, a federal judge agreed with the non-profit Bluewater Network that jet skis are damaging to clean air and water, as well as public health; this decision called for full bans by 2002 unless park-specific environmental reviews determine that there are some areas where their effects are less pronounced. Bluewater brought this suit amid concerns that the Park Service, under pressure from motorized vehicle users, would hedge on its earlier decision, especially in National Recreation Areas.

Since 2001, several major National Recreation Areas have completed their environmental reviews. Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead allow jetskis on most of their waters.

European Union moves toward new sound and emission standards for pleasure boats (October 30, 2001) [PRESS RELEASE]


Noise Pollution Clearinghouse - active in tracking this issue. [WEBSITE] Their Quiet Lakes Project began with development of action tools during 2003, and will culminate in political action to establish noise standards in 2005. [QUIET LAKES WEBPAGE]

Bluewater Network - leading litigant and information source [WEBSITE]

See also Advocacy Groups listed below [GO THERE]


Over the past ten years, snowmobile use has skyrocketed nationwide on public lands, thanks to a new generation of more powerful machines suited to more challenging terrain. While most National Parks limit snowmobiles to groomed trails (often snowed-in roads), in other areas, backcountry snowmobiling involves "off-trail" use. "As snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, and jet skis expand into new areas and seasons of the year because of greater speeds and capabilities, they create new conflicts. They have more impacts on the natural world and the human enjoyment of it," says John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association. Snowmobiles have enjoyed a period of relative welcome from many forests, since they do not feed into the erosion problems associated with off-road vehicles in warmer seasons. But as the numbers have increased, it seems the party may be over.

The tug of war over more stringent management of motorized recreation is nowhere as pronounced as in the battle over snowmobile use in Yellowstone. During the winter of 1999, the Park began considering how to deal with a rapid increase in snowmobile visitation during winter months, after a consortium of 60 environmental groups, led by the Bluewater Network, petitioned NPS and the EPA to ban snowmobiles from the 36 National Parks where they were then permitted. This initiated what has become an epic ten-year roundabout between the Park Service, Yellowstone gateway communities and other snowmobile advocates, and two dueling Federal Court judges (who, in a particularly surreal period early in the Bush adminstration, handed down separate rulings that tossed both the Clinton-era move toward banning snowmobiles AND the Bush administration's replacement plan).


Adding to the equation are concerns about snowmobiling in areas not approved for their use. While this is admittedly a "few bad apples" problem (more authentically so than with OHV's, where surveys suggest half of users sometimes ignore rules about riding off-trail), the impacts can be serious. Native Forest Network's Last Refuge Campaign has spent three winters documenting the growing problem of trespass by snowmobilers in federally protected Wilderness and other areas off-limits to motorized recreation. These are wild, remote places, essential habitat for such rare and elusive wildlife as lynx and wolverine, where snowmobile intrusions create stark new impacts. [READ REPORT] In addition, modern powerful snowmobiles are capable of running "off-snow" (though this is an admittedly small problem so far). The Montana-based Swan View Coalition's has produced report "Snowmobiling's Endless Winter: Facilitating Physical Access Extends the Snowmobile Season, Resulting in Harm to Wildlife Security, Vegetation, Soils, and Water" [DOWNLOAD REPORT(pdf)] (see link to pdf report in the left-hand menu).

In late 2006, the Winter Wildlands Alliance released a report, Winter Recreation on Western National Forests: A Comprehensive Analysis of Motorized and Non-Motorized Opportunity and Access. The report looks at each western National Forest individually, collected data on the number of motorized and non-motorized visits, the number of groomed trails, and acreage of backcountry open and closed to snowmobiles. [DOWNLOAD REPORT(pdf)]

A few examples of management approaches

Montana Forest Aims to Designate "Quiet" Side of the Mountain - An increase in backcountry skiing and snowboarding has spurred planners in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to propose closing the Montana side of Mount Jefferson in the Centennial Mountains to snowmobiling. "Snowmobiles disturb the natural experience of skiers," said Jonathan Klein, outdoor recreation planner for the Beaverhead's Madison District. "If you want to establish a quality skiing opportunity, you have to do it in the absence of motorized activity." A draft environmental impact statement is due out in December; objections are expected from snowmobile enthusiasts as the plan works its way toward a new management plan over the coming two years. Ed. note: Using natural sound barriers such as the mountain-top ridge to create separation between quiet and motorized recreation is very much in line with fundamental principles of acoustic ecology. Source: Casper Star-Tribune, 4/14/04 [READ ARTICLE]

Skiers, Snowmobilers Agree on Winter Use Plan Including Large Areas for Each - Nearly two years of collaborative discussions have paid off for winter recreation enthusiasts of all stripes in the Lewis and Clark National Forest of Montana. The agreement includes continued access to most of the current "play area" terrain enjoyed by snowmobilers, with collaborative monitoring involving all parties. Snowmobiles face bans on off-trail use, and several areas are set aside for skiing only from Dec. 1 to May 15. Larger "blocks" of area will be either quiet or motorized, while all access will be limited to trails marked for allowed uses. The agreement follows in the wake of a similar process the groups took part in two years ago, which resulted in a mutually agreeable winter use plan for the Flathead National Forest. Sources: Great Falls Tribune, 4/28/04 [READ ARTICLE] Flathead plan: Daily Inter Lake News [READ STORY]

Yellowstone Sound Survey: Snowmobiles Audible 90% of Time in Many Areas - In February 2000, park visitors were asked to listen and record what they heard at 13 study sites throughout Yellowstone. At eight of the thirteen study sites, snowmobile noise was audible more than 90 percent of the time; only one site was free of snowmobile noise. "I don't have anything against snowmobiles per se, but I do have to say that I was really shocked at the impact that snowmobiles had on the whole experience," said Stewart Mitchell of Bozeman, who logged sounds at Morning Glory Pool. "I've been in the park in the summetime and at equal distance from the roads you don't hear automobiles and you're able to enjoy what you're going down there to see." Source: Billings Gazette, 3/10/00 [READ STORY] Natural Trails and Waters Coalition. [WEBSITE]
UPDATE: NPS 2005 Yellowstone Soundscape Monitoring Report
- Motor noise still audible 80-90% of the time in popular areas. [READ REPORT(pdf)]

Denali Closure - Superintendent Steve Martin closed 2 million acres of the park to snowmobilers in early 1999 (leaving 4 million acres open). "We've seen a tenfold increase in snowmobile use in the last five years or so," he says. "This part of the park is a virtually intact ecosystem — why put that at risk?" In June 2000 the Park Service affirmed this ruling, which protects the wilderness core of the park from snowmobile use, in keeping with system-wide ban on motorized vehicles in wilderness areas. An Alaska Department of Natural Resources study at the time found the 95% of public lands in south-central Alaska remain open to snowmobile use. The snowmobile industry challenged the ban, arguing that snowmobiling should be allowed as a "traditional use" in the wilderness area. In May 2001, the industry petitioned the court to withdraw its suit, explaining that they intended to pursue Congressional authorization to open the wilderness to recreational snowmobiling. Source: High Country News, Natural Trails and Water Campaign [WEBSITE]


(Off Highway Vehicles, All Terrain Vehicles)

See AEI Special Report: OHV Travel Management Planning

Forest Service Releases New National Travel Management Rule - The US National Forest Service has initiated a program aimed at developing new policies to regulate off-highway vehicle use. Central to the program is a move to generally prohibit cross-country travel, restricting OHV use to existing roads and trails. The policy and implementation teams aim to work with OHV enthusiasts as well as quiet users to develop a consistent national approach to the difficult task of designating routes in areas where OHV use has been effectively unregulated. Each forest will have latitude to take its own approach to creation of a network of designated roads, trails, and areas where OHV recreation is allowed. Among the likely challenges of this program are compiling inventories of unauthorized backcountry OHV trails (trails created by OHV users, some of which may be designated for continued use), and obtaining sufficient funding for each forest to both complete the planning process and monitor/enforce the resulting travel plans.
Update: Draft Rule Released, Advocates Comment - The Forest Service released its draft rule governing motorized travel, and accepted comments on it through early September 2004. Info:
[COMMENTS FROM WILDLANDS CPR (unmotorized recreation group)]

A series of court rulings over the past three years have upheld the right of land management agencies to close areas to OHV use when damage is occuring, and to limit off-road travel. In 2002, a Federal Court in Denver ruled that the Forest Service may shut areas to ORV use without going through an environmental impact process, when environmental damage has been occuring. The court allowed to stand new rules that limited ORVs to designated trails in a portion of the Routt National Forest in Colorado. In 2004, a federal court upheld Big Cypress National Preserve's plan to close much of the preserve to off-road vehicle use. Though the Preserve's plan included 400 miles of designated trails, vehicle advocates challenged the limits in court. Also in 2004, a Federal Appeals Court rejected claims by off-road vehicle groups that had challenged a BLM closure of ten miles of trails in the Robledo Mountains Wilderness Study Area north of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The ruling may prevent similar claims that old trails on some of America’s most pristine public lands can be claimed as public highways. "This is a victory for those who love New Mexico’s wildlife and wild places," said New Mexico Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Dave Parsons. "It means that our kids and grandkids may still be able to find some beautiful, unspoiled areas for hiking, hunting, and peace and quiet in the future."

LA Times Feature Story: An Axle to Grind - Focusing on Montana, an in depth story covering the ATV controversy (from October 2001). [WEBSITE]

2007 USGS report: Environmental Effects of Off-Highway Vehicles on Bureau of Land Management Lands: A Literature Synthesis, Annotated Bibliographies, Extensive Bibliographies, and Internet Resources. [DOWNLOAD REPORT]

The Wilderness Society Sound Propagation GIS toolkit - The Wilderness Society has created a very useful tool for anyone addressing noise on public lands: a GIS version of the System for the Prediction of Acoustic Detectability (SPreAD), a noise model issued by the Forest Service and EPA for land managers to "evaluate potential...acoustic impacts when planning the multiple uses of an area." The SPreAD model combines the full range of factors affecting sound propagation across landscapes (spherical spreading, atmospheric absorption, foliage and ground cover, down/upwind effects, topographic barriers and channels) in order to predict how far from a road a vehicle is likely to be heard. [SEE SPreAD USERS GUIDE] [SEE TWS DOC SUPPORTING SOUNDSCAPE ANALYSIS IN BLM PLANNING]

Roadless Areas and Road Closures

In the final days of the Clinton administration, Forest Service Supervisor Mike Dombeck completed a two-year process that included over 600 public meetings in 37 states, by releasing the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. This new policy prohibited building new roads in 58.5 million acres of National Forest lands that are currently roadless. While the two million public comments on the proposed Rule ran 9-1 in favor, and nationwide polls confirmed widespread public support, timber, mining, and recreational groups voiced their outrage. Six lawsuits have been filed challenging the rules; plaintiffs include timber industry organizations, ORV groups, livestock companies, the Kootenai Tribe, Boise County, and the states of Alaska, Idaho, and Utah. The first year of the Bush administration saw the Rule under close scrutiny, with the new administration siding with court challenges to the rule; these court challenges failed (see below), leaving the Rule in place. In the fall of 2004, a proposed rule was released which defers the decision about protecting roadless areas into the jurisdiction of individual states. States would be required to request protection of roadless areas within 18 months of implementation of the rule. In the wake of this ruling, most western states decided to defer to federal rules, with only Utah and Idaho taking on strong state roles to prevent its implementation, and Wyoming and Colorado creating new state oversight that still protects many areas.

Advocacy Organizations

American Recreation Coalition - Advocates for motorized access; membership list is a good place to find links to organizations with particular access interests. [WEBSITE]

BlueRibbon Coalition - Nationwide advocacy group supporting the right to motorized recreation on public lands; leaders in litigation to overturn recreation limitations and resist additional wilderness designations. [WEBSITE]
Related: Save Yellowstone Park -
BlueRibbon project focused on Yellowstone and snowmobiles [WEBSITE]

Bluewater Network - Leaders in the movement to ban jetski and snowmobile use in National Parks and Seashores. [WEBSITE]

Colorado OHV Coalition - Active in keeping Colorado trails and backcountry open to motorized recreation. [WEBSITE]

Greater Yellowstone Coalition - Have spearheaded efforts to limit snowmobile use in Yellowstone. [WEBSITE]

Natural Trails and Waters Coalition - Detailed web site that supports reductions or elimination of motorized vehicle use on public lands. [WEBSITE]

Tread Lightly - OHV gro up that offers PSA and user tips for minimizing impact. [WEBSITE]

US Air Tour Association - Flight operator trade group [WEBSITE]

Utah Shared Access Alliance - Lead plaintiffs in suit to overturn BLM "closed unless posted open" policy, which limits ATV use and camping on BLM lands. [WEBSITE]

Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads - Wide-ranging information and bi-monthly newsletter on efforts to close roads, limit ORV use, and support roadless area initiatives. [WEBSITE]

The Wilderness Society - Maintains an ORV campaign aimed at establishing more stringent management of ORV use. [WEBSITE]

Winter Wildlands Alliance - National consortium of local quiet-use winter recreation groups. Site includes summaries of legal precedents for establishing quiet-use areas, and of public surveys that suggest a preference for quiet recreation. [WEBSITE]

Local Quiet Use Organizations - Regional coalitions that are attempting to counter the well-organized voices of local motorized recreation users and affect policy in local national forests and regional BLM planning.
Quiet Use Coalition (Pike-San Isabel National Forest, Colorado): PO Box 164, Buena Vista, CO 81211
Quiet Trails Campaign (Montana National Forests) [WEBSITE]

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