Snowmachining groups seek dismissal of lawsuit to open Denali

Posted: Friday, June 01, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Two snowmobile groups are trying a new tactic to help snowmachiners regain access to a coveted section of Denali National Park and Preserve.

The Alaska State Snowmobile Association and the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association are asking a U.S. District Court to dismiss a lawsuit they filed last summer against the National Park Service and the Department of Interior. The lawsuit contends the Park Service illegally imposed a ban on riding inside the original park boundaries.

The motion to dismiss without prejudice was filed in Anchorage on Wednesday. Dismissing without prejudice means the plaintiffs could refile the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs agreed to drop the lawsuit in a deal with the Park Service and Interior Department to resolve the issue through Congress, said ASSA President Kevin Hite.

Snowmachiners are willing to give up about 75 percent of the 2 million-acre old park region in exchange for regaining access to the rest of it. They have drafted legislation that would prohibit snowmachining in the section north of the Alaska Range and allow it in the southeast corner.

U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, will soon introduce legislation involving the issue, said spokesman Chuck Kleeschulte, who declined to discuss details. U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has worked with the groups and would likely also support their efforts, spokesman Steven Hansen said.

Meanwhile, the ban is still officially in place, park service spokesman John Quinley said.

''We're happy they're dropping the lawsuit and we're willing to take a look at whatever they propose,'' Quinley said. ''We may find we have grounds to agree on. But we're not ready to say if we support it or not. We haven't had time to look at it.''

Last year Hite's group won a lawsuit against the Park Service's temporary ban on snowmachines in that section of the park. Snowmachining is allowed in the remaining 4 million acres of the park and preserve.

The agency said the 1998 ban was justified because snowmachining was not a traditional activity in the park.

But a federal judge said that term was not defined in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, and for that reason the agency could not justify its snowmachine ban on those grounds.

The Park Service has since defined traditional activities to exclude snowmachines and other uses.

The present lawsuit challenges that definition and the contention that snowmachines damage the environment.

On Thursday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton commended the plaintiffs for their motion to dismiss the lawsuit. She said she planned to work with them and legislators in creating reasonable access to the park.

''I hope to foster a new culture of communications, cooperation and consultation -- all to serve the cause of conservation,'' Norton said. ''If all of those concerned will work together, there is no reason why we can't resolve this and other key conservation issues.''

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