Protect Denali's Wilderness
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Protect Denali’s Wilderness

Conservation groups today criticized U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton for hinting to overturn a rule protecting designated Wilderness in Denali National Park from recreational snowmobile use. The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association’s (ISMA) filed a motion to suspend a lawsuit challenging the rule. The industry said yesterday that it would instead work with the Department of Interior and Congress to seek a “legislative solution” to gain snowmobile access to the Park. ISMA’s motion to “dismiss without prejudice” would allow the snowmobile industry to re-file the lawsuit in federal court in the future, if it fails in its attempts to change the underlying law.

“We’re highly suspect of the motives behind Secretary Norton and the snowmobile industry’s decision to seek a solution through Congress,” said Allen Smith, director of the Alaska office of The Wilderness Society. “The apparent ‘legislative solution’ will diminish protection of the Wilderness area in Denali National Park.”

Smith added, “This is particularly worrisome since the industry lawyers have been meeting with Bush Administration behind closed doors for weeks to overturn the rules.”

According to an ISMA press release, the group has drafted legislation asking Congress to open 25 percent of the Park’s designated Wilderness to recreational snowmobiles and revoke administrative actions taken by the Clinton administration that banned the machines from Denali’s original (2.1) 1.9-million-acre region. The Old Park, which surrounds Mt. McKinley, was designated Wilderness under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Snowmobiles have never been allowed in the Old Park since its dedication as a national park in 1917.

“Authorizing snowmobile use in even a small portion of the Old Park would not only strike at the very core of the Wilderness Act, it would jeopardize one of the most pristine landscapes in America,” said Cliff Eames, Alaska Center for the Environment. “It’s clear that the snowmobile industry has one goal – gaining unrestricted access regardless of the damage inflicted on the Wilderness core of the Park.”

According to the National Park Service, snowmobile use in the Wilderness core of Denali would adversely affect a wide range of wildlife, including moose, caribou, birds of prey, bears, Dall sheep and wolves. It would also damage extremely fragile tundra, soils and vegetation.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources studied snowmobile access in an area covering 34.3 million acres of federal and state lands in south-central Alaska. The Department concluded that about 32.8 million acres – 95 percent of the total area – are open to snowmobile use.