There's a traffic jam in West Yellowstone, Mont., and the Gallatin National Forest wants to do something about it. Snowmobilers who buzz across Cougar Creek on a crowded highway bridge need an alternative route, says the agency, because they're creating a safety problem for themselves and other drivers.


But environmentalists contend that an agency plan for a new $114,000 snowmobile bridge across the creek poses just as much of a threat - not to snowmobilers, but to grizzly bears and wilderness.


"I don't deny there are safety concerns, but I also think putting this bridge in is putting up the green light for snowmobile use," says Phil Knight, Yellowstone representative for the Native Forest Network, who adds that snowmobile trespassing in the adjoining Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area will be greatly increased. Cougar Creek also serves as a major corridor for elk and bear between the wilderness area and Yellowstone National Park, and Knight believes the snowmobile bridge will disturb wildlife.


Because the Forest Service has classified the bridge as a maintenance project, the proposal qualifies for a "categorical exclusion," allowing the agency to forego an environmental assessment. Although environmental groups are crying foul, they have no way to stop the project through the federal appeals process.


Hepgan Lake Forest Service District Ranger Stan Benes acknowledges that the bridge will increase snowmobile traffic in the area. "But snowmobiling has been going on for 25 years, and a bridge will not harm the area," he says. "This is a safety measure, not a new route. We're just trying to get people off of the highway with a little bridge."


The bridge is on federal land, but it will be managed by the state; it's a joint project of the Forest Service, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, and the state of Montana. Construction should begin this fall.


* Rachel Odell