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What Yellowstone Rangers Say, and Don't Say


    Some interesting clips found their way to my desk today, interesting in how they paint the snowmobile debate in Yellowstone National Park.
    One, a letter to the editor of the High Country News, raises the specter that Yellowstone's rangers have lost their First Amendment rights over the snowmobile debate. The other, a story in the Salt Lake Tribune, carries the implication that Yellowstone officials know today's snowmobiles impair the park's Class One air-shed status.
    Combined, these clips convey a disturbing message that those in the Bush administration who are insisting that snowmobiles belong in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are intentionally trampling all over the National Park Service's Organic Act.

    The letter to the High Country News was from Ray Sikorski, a self-described concessions employee at Mammoth Hot Springs. In his letter, Mr. Sikorski relates how he wanted to "get a first-hand opinion on the snowmobile debate," and so approached some of Yellowstone's rangers to ask what they thought of the issue.
    "To my shock, they refused to tell me, because as government employees they're forbidden to publicly express their opinions," he wrote. "This left me utterly dumbfounded. How can we decide this issue without the input of the park rangers? These are the people who are on the front lines of the snowmobile debate, who put up with the noise, suck in the fumes, and whose eyes tear up from the smog.
    "They're the ones who chase after snowmobilers who speed and go off-trail, and they know first-hand the stresses snowmobiles put on wildlife. Yet they're not allowed to give their opinion. Is this really considered democracy?"
    Of course, what's not clear here is whether the rangers were on-duty or off-duty when Mr. Sikorski approached them, for I'm pretty sure that park officials can demand that their employees toe the "corporate line" when on the job. However, comments made off-the-job are another matter entirely.
    The message that Mr. Sikorski's experience conveys is pretty clear: Park officials want to tightly control the dialog over snowmobiles, to the point of muffling their employees.
    And that's where the "interesting" aspect of the two clips comes into play. The Salt Lake Tribune story that caught my eye focused on engineering students at Utah State University who are trying to perfect an electric snowmobile that spews absolutely no emissions.
     In the story, Jim Evanoff, Yellowstone's environmental manager, says park officials are intrigued by the effort because it would help the park maintain its Class One air-shed status, a designation that reflects that the park's air is pristine. It's a designation that could fall under the emissions being spewed by the current generation of snowmobiles darting about the park.
    "As the first national park in the world, it is our responsibility as stewards of this national treasure to preserve and protect it for future generations," Evanoff is quoted as saying.
    So on one hand we have a group of rangers who say "no comment" because they supposedly have been "forbidden" from discussing the matter. On the other we have a park environmental employee who, at the very least, tacitly says the current crop of snowmobiles is polluting the park.
    As I said, two interesting stories.


Although the "tease" for this article on the main page is a big dramatic, you at least do concede on the back pages that it is certainly reasonable for any employer, including the federal government, to prevent on-duty employees from criticizing the employer to the general public. I'm also not convinced that the 1st Amendment is really designed to protect off-duty comments. I think there are many private companies that would fire an employee for making public off-duty remarks that disparaged the employer. John D.

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