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Counties and states surrounding Yellowstone National Park are preparing for another round in the ongoing dispute over snowmobile use.

In the studies that led to a decision to phase out snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the National Park Service included the three surrounding states as well as Park and Teton counties in Wyoming, Park and Gallatin counties in Montana and Fremont County, Idaho.

After the phase-out ruling was issued, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and the state of Wyoming challenged the decision in federal court. The Bush administration settled the lawsuit by agreeing to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) taking another look at the issue.

Those seeking to take part as the Park Service reconsiders winter use in the SEIS must sign a memorandum of agreement by Tuesday, according to a court settlement

Paul Kruse, a consultant hired by the five counties, says the counties are preparing paperwork to take part in the study.

“We have a very tight time frame and a very compressed process to get a lot of work done,” he said.

The next step is to hold a meeting involving the Park Service, the states and the counties. According to deadlines set out in the court settlement, that meeting must take place by July 27, but specific times and a location have not been set.

“We are trying to come up with a date that is most convenient to all,” Kruse said. “I think it’s clear that some counties just because of the timing are not going to be able to participate.”

Optimism is the general feeling among counties, he said.

“There is certainly some information we felt strongly should have been in the first process and should have been considered that wasn’t,” he said. “So from that standpoint, we think the process is justified.”

In particular, Kruse said, the counties were displeased that the National Park Service chose to use a 19-county model to project economic impacts on the tourism industry. That model minimized the impacts by including many counties whose winter economies were not as directly tied to Yellowstone, he said.

The counties had advocated using a five-county model, which would more directly focus on the gateway communities hit hardest by a snowmobile phase-out.

Kruse also said the Park Service glossed over new technologies that make snowmobiles cleaner and quieter machines, a key point in the Bush administration’s decision to settle the lawsuit and reconsider the issue.

“We’re concerned about the absence of information about emissions and noise from snowcoaches,” he said. “That was chosen for a preferred mode of transportation, but very little is known about them from a technological standpoint or from a visitor/comfort standpoint.”

Yellowstone Park spokeswoman Marsha Karle said the Park Service isn’t planning an initial scoping phase to gather public comments. The agency plans to use information gathered in the scoping phase for the previous environmental impact statement.

“With the tight deadlines under the court settlement, it’s just impossible to do that kind of a public comment process until we have a draft that people can comment on,” she said. “The first document that the public would see officially would be the SEIS in January.”

That document must be published on the Internet by Jan. 21, according to the settlement. Printed versions do not have to be sent out until several weeks later. The final decision must be made by November 2002, just before the snowmobile phase-out is scheduled to begin.

Unless the Park Service adopts a new winter use management plan after the current SEIS, the Clinton administration’s decision to phase snowmobiles out of Yellowstone will go forward. The process would begin with a 50 percent reduction in snowmobile use during the winter of 2002-2003; snowcoaches would replace snowmobiles the following winter.

Jeff Tollefson can be reached at (307) 527-7250 or at jtollefson@billingsgazette.com

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