FEAR OF exploitation and degradation is what inspired Congress in 1872 to set aside 2.2 million acres in three states to preserve the unique volcanic region known as Yellowstone as the world's first national park.

President Ulysses S. Grant signed the measure declaring that the sensitive area, with its roaring geysers and bubbling mud, would forever be set apart "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."


But modern-day lawmakers have joined President Bush in turning that guarantee on its head. They are favoring use of the park by snowmobilers over the interests of all other visitors, and putting a higher priority on economic than on environmental concerns.

Sadly, the short shrift given to Yellowstone, that grand old patriarch of parks, is symptomatic of a neglectful policy being applied to our national treasures across the board.


At a time of war and tax cuts and huge deficits, something has to give. And under a spending bill recently approved by the House, a big loser is clearly the nation's parks, already woefully underfunded for repair and maintenance.

Tight money doesn't excuse the refusal to stem the damage done by snowmobiles in Yellowstone, though. In fact, the National Park Service has been required to divert millions of scarce dollars into repeated studies of their impact -- and will have to spend millions more trying to manage snowmobilers unless their access to the park is cut off.

Those studies have consistently shown that snowmobiles cause noise and air pollution that fouls the atmosphere, harms the wildlife and destroys the natural serenity that President Grant and his contemporaries had intended to preserve for generations without end.

At the urging of the park service, former President Bill Clinton ordered in 2000 that snowmobile use in Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park be phased out. But the snowmobile industry howled, and President Bush reversed the order when he took office the following year. The battle moved to the federal courts, where it has resulted so far in conflicting decisions.

An attempt in Congress to legislate a snowmobile ban in the two parks failed in the House last year on a 210-210 tie. But the ban lost ground this year when previous supporters, including Maryland Democrat C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, switched sides to oppose it 224-198.

Mr. Ruppersberger's chief concern was access, a spokeswoman said. He worried that without snowmobiles, visitors couldn't get around Yellowstone during the three-month winter season.

Hiking and cross-country skiing aren't an option for everyone, he reasoned. And he was impressed by research from the snowmobile industry that argued the multipassenger snowcoaches urged as an alternative would offer no improvement on air quality from snowmobiles.

Is winter access to Old Faithful an inalienable right? That may be what the courts decide. Until then, Mr. Bush should let the park service heed its own best judgment and keep the snowmobiles out.