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Aug. 9, 2010 – Park access back in spotlight

August 9, 2010
Filed under Features

A July ruling by a federal district judge has once again put the spotlight on PWC use within the country’s national parks.

Specifically, the ruling finds that Gulf Islands National Seashore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan both violated federal law by allowing PWC?to return to the parks. In the ruling, Judge Gladys Kessler of the District of Columbia notes the court has asked whether the National Park Service (NPS) examined the relevant data, and if it provided a rational and logical connection between the facts found and the policy choices that resulted.

“But even apart from this probing, in-depth review, this case presents an additional overarching question,” noted Kessler. “Why has NPS issued rules allowing jetski use (Editor’s Note: the ruling continually uses the term “jetski” as opposed to the generic personal watercraft or PWC) in two beautiful and pristine national parks, acknowledging that such use will impact, to varying degrees, water quality, air quality, wildlife, animal habitats, soundscapes, visitor use and safety, etc., when the users of jetskis are perfectly free to enjoy their vehicles in other, equally accessible areas, without threatening the serenity, the tranquility — indeed, the majesty — of these two national treasures?”

In a comment that will certainly raise the ire of those familiar with modern quiet and clean four-stroke engines, the judge goes on to suggest that this serenity and tranquility is being compromised by “these highly polluting and noisy vehicles.”

Kessler has directed the Park Service to reconsider whether to allow PWC into the parks, although the judge did not actually reverse the current park rulings that allow PWC use.

The ruling by Kessler once again puts the spotlight on PWC usage within the national park system.

PWC users had long enjoyed access to the National Park System, but as usage increased in the 1990s, concerns about the craft prompted the NPS to propose a now infamous rule in 1998 (that later became final in 2000) banning PWC use in all parks with the exception of 21 with a history of “prior jetski use.” These 21 were then given a two-year grace period in which to research, develop and implement park-specific regulations to allow PWC use. Should they not act, a ban would go into effect when the grace period expired in April 2002.

Environmental groups like Bluewater Network objected to the ruling, claiming it was not “sufficiently protective” of the 21 excepted parks. A lawsuit against the NPS resulted in a settlement agreement that noted if a park excepted from the national ban wished to permit PWC use after expiration of the grace period, it would be required “to promulgate a park-specific regulation on PWC use.” For these parks, the national ban would continue to apply until a park-specific regulation allowing PWC use was issued.

Long story short? The parks, sometimes after lengthy delays, completed their studies, issued their rulings and PWC were allowed back into the majority of the parks in question, returning to Pictured Rocks in 2005 and Gulf Islands in May 2006.

Chris Manthos, executive director of the American Watercraft Association, criticized the ruling. “We fought to restore fairness and equality to these public waterways and won based on science,” Manthos said. “Now, the anti-access crowd put up a single individual in each park unit claiming they were ‘bothered’ by personal watercraft and that’s all it took? Every boater best sit up and take note; who’s next?”

Ignored Assessments

As Manthos notes, Judge Kessler based her decision partly on a 2008 Yellowstone snowmobile ruling, where a fellow judge criticized the NPS for allowing snowmobile usage within the park. Manthos, however, counters that visitors can access Yellowstone through a variety of means, including walking. To visit the waters of Gulf Islands and Pictured Rocks, you need a watercraft.

Perhaps most troubling, however, is the fact that years of work, research and taxpayer money could suddenly be disregarded.

“We complied with the original rules, and worked within the framework of the system like citizens are supposed to,” said Manthos. “A large amount of taxpayer money was spent on an environmental assessment showing personal watercraft were no more of an impact than any other powerboat, and now the government’s own assessments mean nothing?

“If you’re a boater, this is a wake-up call. These (environmental groups) can’t be reasoned with, and they don’t care about you or your choice of recreation. They want all boaters out.” psb

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