Federal Lands:

Agencies Need to Assess the Impact of Personal Watercraft and Snowmobile Use

RCED-00-243: Published: Sep 15, 2000. Publicly Released: Oct 18, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the use of personal watercraft and snowmobile use on federal lands, focusing on: (1) the extent to which personal watercraft and snowmobiles are used in federal units that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the Forest Service; (2) the bases for agency decisions to authorize or prohibit the use of these vehicles; (3) whether restrictions exist on vehicle operations in places where their use is allowed, and how are these restrictions enforced; and (4) the extent to which federal agencies assessed the impact of such use.

GAO noted that: (1) in fiscal year 1999, personal watercraft, snowmobiles, or both were used for recreation in 475 of the 1,018 federal units that responded to GAO's questionnaire; (2) several factors determine whether personal watercraft or snowmobile use is permitted in a particular federal unit; (3) specific provisions in federal law prohibit the use of these vehicles in some locations, such as wilderness areas, and specifically authorize their use in others, such as national recreation areas; (4) if no laws specifically prohibit or authorize use, the federal agency responsible for managing the land and water makes such a determination; (5) NPS and the FWS generally disallow the recreational use of these vehicles unless it can be demonstrated that no harm would be likely to result to the unit's resources and environment; (6) in contrast, the Forest Service and BLM generally allow their use unless the unit manager clearly demonstrates potential harm; (7) approval for recreational use of personal watercraft or snowmobiles on federal lands generally comes with restrictions; (8) in most cases the restrictions come from state laws and regulations that have been adopted by the federal agency or an individual unit; (9) in many cases, enforcement actions are a shared responsibility among federal, state, and local officials; (10) even with this shared responsibility, a significant number of federal units reported that a personnel shortage limited enforcement activity; (11) managers of individual federal units often do not have any information on the impacts of personal watercraft and snowmobiles on their unit's resources and environment; (12) a variety of laws and executive orders authorize the federal land management agencies to monitor the impact of using recreational vehicles on natural resources, safety, and other users of federal lands and waters; (13) about 60 percent of the federal units that have use reported that they have not collected information on the effects of that use; (14) of the remaining units, about half said the information was not adequate for determining how personal watercraft and snowmobile use should be managed; (15) agency officials generally attributed this lack of information to the low priority the agencies have given to monitoring the effects of these vehicles; and (16) according to officials of all four agencies, monitoring has received a low priority because only a few units have experienced intensive use of these vehicles.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should ensure that, where snowmobile and personal watercraft use occurs on federal lands, agencies under their jurisdiction monitor such use to determine what impact, if any, these recreational vehicles are having on natural resources, public safety, and the visiting public. This monitoring should be designed to provide sufficient information to make knowledgeable decisions on the impact of these vehicles in individual units. Once this information is collected, it should be used in any future decisions on whether personal watercraft and snowmobiles are to be allowed on federal lands and waters, and if so, how their use should be managed.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although the current administration does not support the findings, in response to court direction and public input, Yellowstone National Park has developed an extensive monitoring program for snowmobile use in the park. According to the Park Service, information from this monitoring program will be shared with other park units that have snowmobile use and, as funding permits, these other units will implement some level of monitoring to assess impacts from the use of personal watercraft and snowmobiles.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should ensure that, where snowmobile and personal watercraft use occurs on federal lands, agencies under their jurisdiction monitor such use to determine what impact, if any, these recreational vehicles are having on natural resources, public safety, and the visiting public. This monitoring should be designed to provide sufficient information to make knowledgeable decisions on the impact of these vehicles in individual units. Once this information is collected, it should be used in any future decisions on whether personal watercraft and snowmobiles are to be allowed on federal lands and waters, and if so, how their use should be managed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of July 28, 2004, the Department of the Interior has not yet provided its 60-day response to the recommendations. The Department's liaison officer stated that the administration still does not support the findings. However, in response to court direction and public input, Yellowstone National Park has developed an extensive monitoring program for snowmobile use in the park. Information from that monitoring will be shared with other parks that have snowmobile use and, as funding permits, will implement some form of monitoring to assess impacts from personal watercraft use.

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