The legislative onslaught continues for embattled riders of Personal Watercraft (PWC), small jet-powered boats. The National Park Service issued a rule — effective April 20, 2000 — banning Personal Watercraft (PWC) from 11 parks where they had previously been allowed. While local and state agencies have banned PWC use in specific waters, this is the first time a federal agency issued a ban that has nationwide impact.

Prior to this ruling, 32 parks had allowed PWC use. The 11 parks where PWC use has been banned have a two-year grace period, beginning on April 20, 2000, during which park superintendents may propose a plan to reinstate PWC use. If no action is taken, these parks will permanently prohibit PWC use.

The 11 parks affected by the ban are: Biscayne National Park, Florida; Canaveral National Seashore, Florida; Golden Gate National Recreational Area, California; Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin; Isle Royal National Park, Michigan; Glacier National Park, Montana; Olympic National Park, Washington; Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan; Canyonlands National Park, Utah; Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona; St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, Wisconsin/Minnesota.

"This type of action sets a negative precedent for us," said Larry Lambrose, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA), which represents the four major PWC manufacturers. Lambrose added that PWC users are the new kids on the block, and this may explain why they have been singled out among all other watercraft users. "Critics of PWC use say they pollute, they are noisy and scare the wildlife, but it is no more than other motorized boats."

Lambrose added that the National Park Service (NPS) and the White House Council on the Environment have made it clear they do not want motorized recreational vehicles in the parks or public lands. This action is just the "tip of the iceberg," he said.

A document released by the NPS stated that the rule was made to take a precautionary approach to PWC use out of concern for the potential negative impact from PWC use, visitor safety concerns and visitor-use conflicts.

Jeff Cobb, chief ranger at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, a park that banned PWC use in May, 1999, said that his park is not the right place for this type of activity. He noted that people come to the park from all over the United States, and when they get there, they expect a peaceful environment.

"This is an old way of life here, where you can watch the fishermen working their traps," said Cobb, who added that the most noticeable nuisance of PWC use in the park is the "loud, mosquito-like noise they make."

Cobb reported that when the park opened up the PWC question, it received 1,034 responses that were 11 to 1 against PWC use. " People were so passionately opposed to PWC use on the park's waterways that you did not even want to touch some of the letters, you could feel the aggression," he said.

Success breeds contempt

PWC use has been a flashpoint of controversy since the craft rose in popularity in the early 1990s. According to statistics from the PWIA, sales of PWC units hit a peak in 1995, when approximately 200,000 units were sold. During the 1990s, PWC sales were the fastest growing segment in the marine industry.

But along with the rapid growth came increasing concerns and complaints from individuals and organizations about PWC use, especially in the areas of waterway user conflicts, safety, accidents, injury, negative resource impact, noise, wildlife disturbance and pollution.

Mark Denny, former government affairs manager of the American Watercraft Association said government agencies are treating PWC users the way a parent would treat a child.

"I would characterize the present stage of PWC development as being at late adolescence or early adulthood," Denny said. "You will probably see fairly aggressive regulations placed on PWC use by the government at this time."

Denny said the problem with the recent NPS ban is that it is "based on yesterday's information." He pointed out that the four PWC manufacturers are using new emissions-reducing and noise-reducing technologies. In fact, according to Denny, many new PWC models on the market already meet emissions standards that will be required in 2006 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Strong anti-PWC sentiment

According to Sean Smith, public lands director of the Blue Water Network, an organization fighting for a total ban on PWC in national parks, the NPS decision was a step in the right direction but did not go far enough. He said the NPS relented to PWC supporters by exempting 21 parks from the ban. Smith said that so many people are so strongly opposed to PWC use that it may be a worthy subject to study as a cultural phenomenon.

According to the NPS, the 21 National Recreational Areas that still allow PWC use are: Amistad, Texas; Assateague Island, Maryland; Bighorn Canyon, Montana; Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Cape Lookout, North Carolina; Chickasaw, Oklahoma; Cumberland Island, Georgia; Curecanti, Colorado; Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania/New Jersey; Fire Island, New York; Gateway, New York; Glen Canyon, Arizona/Utah; Gulf Islands, Florida/Mississippi; Indiana Dunes, Indiana; Lake Mead, Arizona/Nevada; Lake Meredith, Texas; Lake Roosevelt, Washington; Padre Island, Texas; Pictured Rocks, Michigan; and Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity, California.

Smith reported that the Blue Water Network plans to challenge the NPS rule and push for a PWC-use ban in all national parks. The network has argued that it is the duty of the NPS to minimize or eliminate activities, such as PWC use, that permanently impair essential park resources.

Brian Kelly, an attorney in San Francisco who has done work for PWC interests, said that the NPS rule could be challenged, and there may be a chance that PWC could be allowed backin many of the parks.

"I personally feel there may be ways to attack the banning rule," Kelly said. "For one thing, it seems that the impact on navigation in the rule is something that is typically applied with uniformity on the federal level. If the NPS is now saying what is and what isn't acceptable for navigation on these waters in a non-uniform way, for example banning PWC use but permitting motorboats, and there is an impact on interstate commerce, then they are essentially stating what kind of vessels can and cannot operate on their waters."

Kelly said that assumption of authority may be beyond the scope of the NPS.

According to statistics from the PWIA, PWC use is one of the most popular activities in boating. However, it's future may be uncertain due to an increasing number of bans imposed by local, state and, now for the first time, federal agencies.