Associated Press Study predicts 30 percent decline in winter visitation if ban goes into effect

CODY, Wyo. (AP) - Five counties surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks have written the U.S. Department of the Interior to protest a proposed ban on snowmobiles in the parks.

The proposal ignores the counties' opinions even though they are designated cooperating parties in a new winter use plan, said Tuesday's joint letter to Don Barry, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

The National Park Service originally preferred a plan to plow the road from West Yellowstone, Mont., to Old Faithful.

Last month, the agency announced it was leaning toward banning snowmobiles altogether. The change "causes suspicion and questions the counties' steadfast participation in the process," the letter said.

The letter also criticized the change as based on flawed and incomplete data. A key study on snowmobile pollution is seriously flawed and the agency intends a revision to list 10 errors, the county commissioners wrote.

Sixteen studies the Park Service has contracted have not been completed and not all public comments on the winter use plan have been read, they said.

Now, tight deadlines the Park Service has set for the counties to respond to the announcement "preclude our effective participation," they wrote.

The letter was signed by all county commissioners from Park County, Wyo.; Gallatin and Park counties, Mont.; Fremont County, Idaho; and four of five Teton County commissioners.

Park officials have said they have not yet made a decision to ban snowmobiles but based their change in opinion on documentation of snowmobile impacts such as noise and air pollution.

Yellowstone spokeswoman Marsha Karle said park officials are continuing to examine more than 35,000 public comments on winter use and have invited more input from the counties.

If snowmobiles were banned, winter visitors could enter most of Yellowstone only on mass-transit snowcoaches, skis or snowshoes.

County officials had fought to be considered "cooperating parties" in the development of the winter use plan. Some feared from the start that the new plan would restrict winter use of the parks and depress winter tourism.

Park Service officials initially declined to make the counties' request but relented under pressure from the congressional delegations of the states around Yellowstone.

The governors of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have since requested top Interior officials to discuss the winter use issue.

An environmental study predicts a 30 percent decline in winter visitation to the greater Yellowstone region if the parks were open only to snowcoach or other nonmotorized travel.

Such a decline would cut $16.5 million from the economy of the 17-county region and would lead to the loss of an estimated 399 jobs, according to the study.

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