- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2000

The odd thing about "public" lands is that the public often has very little say as to how such lands may be used or by whom. It's a neat semantic trick of collectivists and power-lusters from all sides of the ideological spectrum. By diffusing legal ownership among an amorphously defined "public," a handful of administrators and officials retains all meaningful benefits of ownership e.g., use and disposal lacking only explicit legal title. The public, meanwhile, gets nothing except, of course, the bill.

Consider the recent unilateral decision by the National Park Service (NPS) to forbid snowmobiles in national parks, such as Yellowstone National Park and others. The general public gets to pay for the upkeep of these parks via the taxes we pay and in theory we are all co-owners of these "public" resources. And yet, a minuscule elite with offices in Washington determines how we may use the lands "we" own and under what conditions.

That 70 percent or more of us feel that snowmobiles ought to be allowed, according to a recent poll, is irrelevant. What matters is that National Park Service officials dislike snowmobiles and so they have been banned. An "environmental" excuse was trotted out but there is little, if any, scientific support for the argument that snowmobiles are dangerous on this count. What it comes down to, instead, is that National Park Service bureaucrats find the sounds of snowmobiles annoying and we can't have the peace and quiet of NPS bureaucrats disturbed.

Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, points out that not only is NPS denying access to lands supposedly owned by the public, it is also making it much more difficult for older people, or those with disabilities, to visit the remote areas of National Parks that are not accessible by roads or conventional vehicles. "This issue matters to any American who values free access to our national parks," he said. "If this ban is upheld, many disabled Americans will be shut out of our national parks in the winter," adds Ed Dougherty, a disabled snowmobiler from King of Prussia, Pa.

Mr. Klim also points out the "National Park Service decision [to ban snowmobiles] was based on 'junk science' made without any public input or supervision." He says that the NPS action is based on obsolete data about snowmobiles' operating characteristics which have changed markedly in the decade since the data were collected. Modern snowmobiles are not only much quieter than their forebears, they are also vastly more environmentally friendly. "All new snowmobiles meet or exceed all national emission and sound level requirements," he says.

More than a dozen senators have signed a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt denouncing the snowmobile ban as "totally inappropriate." Republican Senator Rod Grams of Minnesota, who was among those who signed the letter to Mr. Babbitt, argued in a May 12 speech on the Senate floor that "this decision stands as a dramatic example of how not to conduct policy formulation and is an affront to the consideration American citizens deserve from their government."

Congress is going to take up the issue of the snowmobile ban and related unilateral actions by the Park Service regarding access to parks and the uses they may be put to by the public. Here's hoping Congress sees to it that the public gets to partake of lands that it ostensibly "owns."

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