WASHINGTON — In a blow to snowmobilers and all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts, the Interior Department issued new guidelines Monday that emphasize preserving natural resources over developing more recreation opportunities at national parks.
The guidelines reverse a controversial proposal last year that put more priority on attracting vacationers and recreation users beyond nature enthusiasts.
Conservation "is the heart of these policies and the lifeblood of our nation's commitment to care for these special places and provide for their enjoyment," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said in announcing the new draft guidelines.
The new parks policy will become final in about three weeks, officials said. It is one of Kempthorne's first moves after resigning as Idaho's governor to take over the Interior Department less than a month ago.
Critics, including some members of Congress, had chided former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the Park Service for proposing wide-ranging changes they said would benefit recreation and commercial interests at a cost to conservation.
The 2005 plan by Assistant Deputy Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman would have placed more emphasis on recreation and expanded the use of snowmobiles and ATVs on federal land.
It proposed that in order for activities to be prohibited in parks, they must be something that "irreversibly" harms the parks instead of only harming them.
Park advocates and wildlife and environmental groups said the new guidelines unveiled Monday revert to policies in place since 2001 that explicitly say the Park Service's top mandates are conservation and preventing harm to natural resources.
"They have turned back a blatant attempt to undermine the national park values," said Rob Arnberger of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
The new draft emphasizes that when deciding whether to allow cell towers, ATVs, personal watercraft or other motorized vehicles, a park supervisor must consider whether any new use would damage not only the air, water, land and wildlife but also "the atmosphere of peace and tranquility and natural soundscapes" in parks.
It specifies that lands eligible for wilderness designation should be free from snowmobiles, ATVs and other motorized vehicles.
Greg Mumm, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a recreation group that has pushed for snowmobile access in Yellowstone National Park, said the new policy is a setback when compared with last year's proposal.
"All forms of recreation (should) be able to enjoy our national parks," Mumm said.
The new guidelines don't settle some outstanding questions, such as whether snowmobiles should be allowed in Yellowstone at all. That question will be decided in an environmental study later this year, Kempthorne said.
Environmentalists said they are hopeful that the new policy will help tip the scales in favor of phasing out snowmobiles in Yellowstone.
Kristen Brengel, a lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, described the new policy draft as good but noted that lobbyists for commercial and recreation interests still have three weeks to change Kempthorne's mind.
"It's not over yet," Brengel said. "Now Kempthorne will have his first opportunity to show whether he can be a true steward of the national parks."