Jet Skis and National Parks, Are They Compatible?

How do we as a society want the national park system to be managed? That's a question I've been asking since I launched this blog last summer, and it's a question that won't go away. And that's OK, because we as a society should debate that question until we arrive at a consensus.
Do we want the National Park Service to, in large part, concentrate on preserving a natural heritage that goes back to pre-colonial days, a majestic landscape of soaring mountains, thick forests, dramatic red-rock canyons, rushing rivers and pristine lakes, a place were man-made intrusions are tightly limited so we can reflect and marvel in nature without common-day distractions?
Or, should the agency open the parks to all forms of motorized recreation, in effect transforming the parklands into national forest lands and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands that long have been the proper playground for ATVs, snowmobiles, Jet skis and mountain bikes?
The main battleground that this question has been waged over long has been Yellowstone National Park, where the debate has focused on snowmobiles. However, the debate expands on Wednesday when the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs gathers to discuss national parks and personal watercraft, aka Jet Skis, WaveRunners and the like.
It's a debate, I think, that needs to touch on the philosophical as much as the tangible.

Technology exists to make snowmobiles and personal watercraft (PWCs) cleaner and quieter. Indeed, the Personal Watercraft Industry Association says current technology allows for today's PWCs to operate 75 percent quieter and up to 90 percent cleaner than pre-1998 models.
It will only be a matter of time before even cleaner and quieter technology is embraced by the marketplace. And when it is, then opponents will lose some of their arguments for opposing their use in national parks.
But this new technology likely won't be completely silent, and it will continue to leave some impacts on the landscape, and there still will be those who object to its existence within the national parks on the simple grounds that they don't believe they belong.
Rick Smith, a long-time Park Service employee, member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and a frequent voice in this corner of cyberspace, the other day was interviewed for a story in Thunderbear, the self-described "oldest alternative newsletter in the federal government." And in that interview Rick neatly packaged all the arguments for why national parks should be off-limits for the forms of motorized recreation now fighting to gain acceptance within their borders.
"Unlike what the current political leadership seems to think, parks don't have to service the full range of recreational users," he said. "Parks are special. That's why they are parks. The Congress meant them to be special. The argument that because they are public lands they have to accommodate all uses is bogus."
That's a good argument, but one that increasingly struggles to gain traction in some pockets of Congress.
Representative Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican, is one who doesn't buy into it. Chairwoman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Representative Miller called this week's hearing to find out why five NPS units -- Gateway National Recreation Area, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Curecanti National Recreation Area and Big Thicket National Preserve -- have not published rules authorizing PWC access to their waters. She wants them in those parks, and believes economic hardships will rule until they are allowed.
There will be lots of facts, figures and anecdotes tossed about during the hearing, which starts at 10 a.m. EDT. You can be sure for every "fact" ban proponents toss out, PWC advocates will counter with their own "facts."
For instance, Laura Baughman of The Trade Partnership, a consulting firm, will say NPS PWC bans have cost the national economy nearly $3 billion during a nine-year period that began in 1996. Also testifying will be Carl Schneebeck, the public lands campaign director for the Bluewater Network, who not only will question that number, but also question the propriety of PWCs in the parks.

PWC Debate Largely Philosophical

Spend a few days researching this particular debate, as I have, and you might share my conclusion that the real debate over PWCs in national park waters largely should be philosophical, though economics and pollution certainly play supporting roles.
At Wednesday's hearing Ms. Baughman will certainly red-flag her determination that rumors of PWC bans in national park waters, as well as actual bans, have cost the national economy $2.7 billion between 1996 and 2005.
She arrived at that number by crunching PWC sales data and NPS economic data gleaned from environmental assessments conducted on proposed PWC bans through U.S. Commerce Department input/output formulas. The result, she tells me, takes into account not merely declining PWC sales but revenues lost upstream and downstream to manufacturers, their employees, trucking companies that deliver the water toys to dealers, lost dealer sales, and even lost gasoline sales, restaurant tabs, and hotel reservations.
"When you know what isn't being sold, you can just work it through the tables and calculate" the overall loss," Ms. Baughman said.
By discounting the departure from the industry of two manufacturers from her calculations, by discounting the 2001 recession, and even discounting the arrival of larger, more expensive PWCs that arrived in 2002, Ms. Baughman believes the only possible stimuli for that $2.7 billion hit on the economy is the NPS's efforts to ban PWCs from its waters.
"Use of personal watercraft in the United States has been adversely affected by consideration and implementation of bans on their use in U.S. national parks," begins her resulting study, Analysis of the Economic Impact of the Ban on Use of Personal Watercraft by the National Park Service. "The negative impacts of the bans (and of publicity associated with the bans) has resulted in lost sales since 1995, which in turn has adversely impacted U.S. producers and distributors of PWC, their suppliers, retailers and other businesses that service PWC and their users."

What About Negative Publicity?

But there are other numbers and matters that Ms. Baughman told me she didn't factor into her equation. One number she wasn't aware of comes from the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, which in 2000 calculated that "the 1.3 million jet skis in the United States impose approximately $900 million of noise costs on U.S. beach-goers each year. That number, the group extrapolated, would reach $1.07 billion by 2005.
In national park waters specifically, the report said noise associated with PWCs translates into $175 million worth of "disamenity" -- in essence, the intrinsic economic value placed on noise.
Something else Ms. Baughman told me she didn't weigh was the negative PWC publicity that arose in 1997 in the wake of reports from both the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control. Those groups reported that between 1990 and 1995 there had been a four-fold increase in PWC injuries -- lacerations, contusions and broken bones.
"The rate of (emergency department) treated injuries related to PWC use was about 8.5 times higher than the rate of those from motorboats," the AMA abstract stated.
Ms. Baughman questions whether that publicity could have played a role in the PWC sales decline after 1995, pointing out that sales were on an upswing during the first half of the decade, so evidently any previous publicity about PWC injuries hadn't harmed sales.
But what about possible market saturation? On its website, the Personal Watercraft Industry Association carries a story about Honda's entry to the market. In that 2002 story, the writer notes that "after a sales explosion in 1995 at 212,000 units, used machines began to compete, cutting into sales of new units."
"At some point you'll have a retirement of used machines," Yamaha Motor Corp. USA President Mark Speaks told the writer. "New vehicle sales begin to grow, and I think we're on the verge of that upswing."
Nowhere in that lengthy article is there mention of poor sales due to NPS PWC bans.
That same year, more bad publicity hit the PWC industry when the American Canoe Association published its 52-page report, Hostile Waters, the Impacts of Personal Watercraft Use on Waterway Recreation.
Behind an array of newspaper headlines -- "Windsurfer Killed by an Illegally Speeding Jet Ski," "Illinois Woman Killed In Collision on Water," "Death of Jet Ski Linked to Teen's Inexperience," "Increase in Water Scooters Churns Up Safety Concerns" -- the ACA built a case against the harm and ill-will PWCs were causing.
"Between 1996 and 2000, 12,218 PWC were involved in collisions with other vessels," notes the report, which pulled its figures from U.S. Coast Guard data. "Over that five-year period, PWC -- comprising less than 10 percent of all vessels -- have been involved in over 55 percent of all vessel-on-vessel collisions reported to (U.S. Coast Guard)."
At the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, Executive Director Maureen Healey doubted that the sales decline was tied to accidents and this sort of publicity.
"I don't think so. I say that for two reasons. I'm not familiar with the 1997 (CDC) study that you cite, so I can't speak to that directly. Secondly, we are proud to tout that 99.9 percent of all watercraft are operated accident-free."
Down through the years, too, the injury/fatality rates per 1,000 PWC has dropped, from 2.31 injuries and 0.09 fatalites in 1991 to 0.64 injuries and 0.04 fatalities, according to the association.
Ms. Healey also noted that the industry strongly supports legislation requiring mandatory use of personal flotation devices by PWC operators and riders, as well as restrictions on riding before sunrise or after sundown.

Studies and More Studies

I ran across quite a bit more information studying this issue.
Reading the Federal Register reports on the proposed PWC rules for Cape Lookout National Seashore and Gulf Islands National Seashore, I was struck by regulations that would require PWCs to stay 200 feet away from swimmers and non-motorized craft and generate no wakes when within 300 yards of shore. How would rangers enforce those restrictions? Do the parks even have enough rangers for the task?
In talking about impacts on wildlife in general and threatened, endangered or special concern species specifically, the reports used a lot of qualifiers -- "may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect" -- to discuss how allowing PWCs might affect species such as the Florida manatee, the Atlantic green turtle, Kemp's Ridley turtle, Atlantic loggerhead and alligator snapping turtle through collisions.
But the reports also raised some concerns.
"Some research suggests that PWC use affects wildlife by causing interruption of normal activities, alarm or flight, avoidance of degradation of habitat, and effects on reproduction success," reads the Cape Lookout narrative in the Federal Register. "This is thought to be a result of a combination of PWC speed, noise and ability to access sensitive areas, especially in shallow-water depths."
A bit further the report notes that "...experts from around the country have voiced concern that PWC activity can have negative impacts on marine mammals, disturbing normal rest, feeding, social interactions and causing flight."
"Toothed whales (included dolphins) produce sounds across a broad range of communication as well as echolocation, a process of creating an acoustic picture of their surroundings for the purpose of hunting and navigation," the narrative continues.
"Watercraft engine noise can mask sounds that these animals might otherwise hear and use for critical life functions and can cause temporary hearing threshold shifts. Bottlenose dolphins exposed to less than an hour of continuous noise at 96 dB experienced a hearing threshold shift of 12 to 18 dBs, which lasted hours after the noise terminated. A hearing threshold shift of this degree would substantially reduce a dolphin's echolocation and communication abilities."
The PWIA response to wildlife concerns is straightforward: "...marine mammal injuries or fatalities attributable to PWC are non-existent."
I was astounded by the amount of pollution two-stroke PWCs can generate --an Environmental Protection Agency study found that an "average 2000 model-year personal watercraft can discharge between 3.8 and 4.5 gallons of fuel during one hour at full throttle." Now, while the PWIA points out that roughly 80 percent of new sales involve cleaner and quieter 4-stroke models, with an estimated 1.48 million PWCs in use, there still are a lot of 2-strokes on the market, and the proposed rules do not bar them from the parks.
While the PWIA believes, in part, that it is being discriminated against because the Park Service isn't banning motorboats from its waters, ban proponents say PWCs are noisier and their mode of travel --often zigzagging and jumping each other's wakes -- more disturbing to other park visitors that your average motorboat.

So Now What?

So, what does it all mean?
For an industry that sells about 80,000 units per year, the PWIA has significant political connections to buck the NPS and gain congressional review. At the same time, there obviously is demand for these water toys. The question is why, when 98 percent of U.S. waters already are open to PWCs, according to the American Canoe Association, are NPS waters so crucial to the industry?
"If other types of motorized boats are allowed in those parks, we feel the discrimination against personal watercraft is unjustified," Ms. Healey told me. "We simply are looking to be treated like other motorized boats. We are simply asking the Park Service to play out the process where they are conducting environmental assessments, do so and make the determination on sound science, transparency, and peer review."
Too, I think the philosophical debate that I mentioned earlier needs to be factored in. If, as Rick Smith says, national parks truly are special places, they're entitled to that dialog.