'Protect Taxpayers' Access to Public Lands,' Say Lawmakers

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Two Republican congressmen want to give the National Park Service more time to study the environmental impact of using personal watercraft (i.e., jetskis) inside park borders before banning the machines.

But an environmental group calls their proposed legislation a "backdoor method of allowing unfettered use of personal watercraft."

Reps. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and George Radanovich (R-Calif.) say their proposed bill would extend an April 2002 deadline for the National Park Service to complete its personal watercraft evaluation. In the meantime, people would be allowed to use jetskis and similar machines in parks that still allow them.

In March 2000, the National Park Service issued a rule banning personal watercraft in 66 parks nationwide. This followed environmentalists' complaints that the machines are noisy and polluting as well as a threat to wildlife and public safety.

But 21 parks were temporarily exempted from the ban, pending further study.

Environmental studies for some of those exempted parks were supposed to be finished by April 2002, but according to Reps. Jones and Radanovich, "The National Park Service under the Clinton-Gore Administration sat on their hands."

Jones and Radanovich say their bill would let people continue using personal watercraft in 21 national parks, while giving the National Park Service more time to complete the environmental assessments that it agreed to undertake as part of a legal settlement with the Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group.

They say their bill does not remove the existing ban on personal watercraft in most national parks, nor does it change regulations that may lead to a ban in additional parks.

"This legislation will only temporarily keep our National Parks open for access," Rep. Jones said in a statement.

'Sneaky move'

But Bluewater Network calls the proposed legislation a "sneaky" move to buy two more years for personal watercraft users.

"Tell Congress that you oppose the approval of any bill that would delay the implementation of a personal watercraft ban for our National Parks," the environmental group said in a statement on its website.

According to Bluewater Network, a court settlement reached in March 2000 ordered the National Park Service to ban personal watercraft in the remaining 21 parks in 2002, unless completed reviews showed that the machines are not harming the parks.

If the reviews were not finished by the deadline (and they will not be), the National Park Service - according to Bluewater - was "required" to close its waters to personal watercraft until the review process is finished and a rule is issued.

In other words, Bluewater Network argues that the 2002 deadline does not apply to the environmental studies - it just means the parks must halt jetski use on that date if the environmental studies aren't finished.

The Jones-Radanovich bill "undermines the Park Service's established public processes, environmental reviews, and the US judicial system," Bluewater said in a statement.

Taxpayers' right to public access

Bluewater views the Jones-Radonovich bill as the Jetski Industry's "backdoor attempt" to allow personal watercraft in national parks.

But Rep. Jones - the vice chairman of the House Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee - says the central issue is whether American taxpayers should have access to public lands. Congress must "protect and ensure" that right, he says.

"Snowmobiles have been banned from Yellowstone National Park*; vehicles banned from Zion National Park and personal watercraft from Cape Hatteras National Seashore. This assault against taxpayer access to public lands must be stopped and replaced with common-sense solutions to the conservation of our public resources," Jones said in a statement.

The personal watercraft industry, meanwhile, says today's models are "some of the cleanest motorized vessels on the water." The Personal Watercraft Industry Association also notes that today's models are 70 percent quieter than 1998 models.

*The Clinton adminsitration approved a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone the day before George W. Bush was sworn in as presdient. The Bush administration then placed a moratorium on the Yellowstone snowmobile ban. Frustrated park rangers have taken to wearing gas masks to protect themselves from the exhaust they say sickens them. The issue still is not settled.