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
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.