(CN) - A November rule allowing 318 snowmobiles per day in Yellowstone National Park overrides the latest chapter in the heated legal battle between snowmobile enthusiasts and park conservationists, the 10th Circuit ruled.
The Denver-based appeals court dismissed an appeal by the Conservation Association, which challenged a Wyoming federal judge's decision to reinstate the National Park Service's 2004 rule, which capped snowmobiles in Yellowstone at 720 per day.
"Though by now the case has begun to resemble a procedural maze," Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote, the 318-snowmobile cap issued on Nov. 20 "has cut for us a clear path through to an obvious and inevitable end."
U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Wyoming had revived the 2004 rule, but removed its sunset provisions, ordering the Park Service to allow 720 snowmobiles daily "until such time as it can promulgate an acceptable rule to take its place."
That time was Nov. 20, according to the 10th Circuit.
"Now that the Park Service has acted, by its terms the Wyoming court's order has expired and any challenge to either that order or the supplanted 2007 rule is moot," Judge Gorsuch wrote.
"Put differently, even if this case wasn't moot before, it surely is now."
Snowmobilers and environmentalists have been battling it out since the Park Service adopted a default rule in 1974 barring snowmobiles in national parks "except on designated routes."
Sled opponents sued in district court in Washington, D.C., triggering a 2001 policy aimed at phasing out snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. Snowmobile enthusiasts fought back in Wyoming district court, winning park access for 950 snowmobiles per day.
The Park Service temporarily set the number at 720 in 2004, but that rule expired after the 2006-2007 winter season. The Park Service then replaced it with a 540-snowmobile limit in 2007. Enthusiasts claimed the 2007 rule allowed too few snowmobiles, while opponents argued it permitted too many.
"[T]he Park Service had seemingly sought to pursue a strategy of seeking to please everyone all the time, settling each legal challenge as it came rather than litigating any through appeal for a definitive resolution of the matter," Gorsuch wrote.
When Washington's U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan vacated the 2007 rule, Judge Brimmer in Wyoming lamented that a court "sitting 2,000 miles away from the actual subject of this litigation feels compelled to hand down a ruling."
Though Brimmer said he would have upheld the 2007 rule, he refused to disturb Sullivan's order. However, he said he felt compelled to reinstate the 720 cap until the Park Service came up with a new one, in light of the apparent policy void.
The Conservation Association appealed Brimmer's order, claiming the Wyoming court lacked jurisdiction to reinstate the 2004 rule.
The 10th Circuit panel agreed that the dispute was moot, but based its ruling on the recent November policy.
Groups pushing for greater snowmobile access include the International Snowmobile Manufacturer's Association, the American Council of Snowmobile Associations and the BlueRibbon Coalition.
The National Parks Conservation Association joined the Conservation Association in opposing their efforts.
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