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Success: Yellowstone National Park and Air Pollution

Carolyn Raffensperger As our friends at the Winter Wildland Alliance said, “It’s been a long, long time coming – 15 years, 1.1 million public comments and the most grind-it-out, exhaustive campaign Winter Wildlands Alliance has ever embarked on – so all of us at WWA are thrilled with today’s release of the Final Yellowstone Winter Visitation Plan from the National Park Service.”

The final regulations issued by the National Park Service in October 2013, will reduce air pollution and noise that harmed wildlife and human health at Yellowstone National Park from excessive snowmobiles and other vehicles. We at the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) were part of this victory.

Challenging an earlier draft of the regulations, Dr. Ted Schettler, Science Director for the Science and Environmental Health Network and Dr. Sarah Janssen, did a report in 2003 on the air pollution cause by snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. They said, “In summary, the evidence presented here demonstrates that serious public health risks from pollution would remain under the National Park Service plan to continue snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The agency did not use the best available data in its most recent analysis. Air pollution and health effects from snowmobiles have been underestimated, poorly depicted, and, in some cases, not analyzed at all. For these reasons, actual exposure and health risks for park employees and potentially tens of thousands of winter visitors would be greater than the National Park Service has reported.”

Ten years after Ted and Sarah wrote this report, their efforts are reflected in a much stronger final rule that actually protects the health of park employees, visitors and wildlife.

There are numerous lessons from this 15-year struggle. The first is that important wins can take a long time. So much of environmental work, and SEHN’s in particular, is laying foundations, doing painstaking research, arguing for different policies that protect public health and the environment. We often don’t see the results for 5, 10 or 15 years. But we do see them. This makes victories like this one so sweet.

The second important lesson is that coalitions have power. SEHN’s report alone would not have had much impact without the million plus public comments. Nor would it have had an effect without grassroots groups using every tool in its tool box to change public policy.

The third lesson is that it takes a lot of different tools to change public policy. The effort to reduce pollution at Yellowstone took science, lawsuits, and raw grassroots organizing.

The law creating the National Park system says that the parks, like Yellowstone, are to be enjoyed by present generations and passed on to future generations unimpaired. This new rule limiting the noise and air pollution of snowmobiles allows those of us alive now to enjoy this great treasure of the commons and pass it on unimpaired to future generations.

For all of you who worked so hard on this over so many years, I thank you. Job well done.