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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Environmental Protection Agency softened its opposition to snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, saying clean air standards could be met with newer machines using stricter pollution controls.

The EPA warned in a letter to the National Park Service released Monday, however, that snowmobiles with the new technology are not yet available. It reiterated earlier findings that banning snowmobiles outright from the two parks may be the best way to protect the environment.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, as well as along the highway that links them, has become a hot issue in the national capital as well as in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, where the parks are.

Pollution has gotten so bad that Yellowstone issued respirators to gate workers who complained about headaches, nausea and dizziness on days when hundreds of snowmobilers lined up at a busy park entrance. Park workers also report that snowmobilers are riding off the groomed trails, damaging trees and harassing wildlife.

During the final days of the Clinton administration, the Park Service proposed phasing out snowmobiles from the two parks by the winter of 2003-2004. The snowmobile industry sued, and the Bush administration agreed to order a new study of how snowmobiling has affected the two Western parks. That potentially opened the door to relaxing the Clinton-era ban.

The EPA offered its comments to the National Park Service as a cooperative agency. The service will have the ultimate decision on whether to bar snowmobiling in these parks or limit their use.

A decision is expected in November, just before the annual snowmobile season begins.

Signed by newly appointed regional administrator Robert E. Roberts, headquartered in Denver, the letter supports industry claims that new technology may solve the problem of air pollution in the park.

``Today, there is a broad range of control technologies available to reduce emissions from snowmobiles,'' the letter says. It outlines how catalytic converters now on highway-driven motorcycles could reduce snowmobile emissions to acceptable standards.

``While there are no snowmobiles designed today that meet this level of emissions reduction, the technology is available,'' the letter says.

The letter, dated May 29, is only a couple of pages long, compared to the 13-page letter the EPA sent the park service in April.

``This letter was sent to the Park Service to be considered in addition to our original comment letter. The (new) letter does not revise or retract any of the original comments that EPA made,'' said Philip Strobel, an EPA engineer in the Denver office who has worked as a liaison between the EPA and the park service on the project.

Both environmentalists and industry supporters found reason to celebrate the letter.

``For the second time in a month, the (EPA) has underscored that the best available protection for public health and the environment in Yellowstone is to phase out snowmobile use,'' said Jon Catton, a spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Montana-based group which acts as an advocate for the park.

Yet snowmobile enthusiasts saw the letter as reversing the April letter, despite Strobel's insistence it does not.

``I'm very encouraged they are making these kinds of comments, because its in line with what we've been saying all along,'' said Clark Collins, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a Pocatello, Idaho-based group that lobbies for dealerships and off-road riders.

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On the Net:

National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/

BlueRibbon Coalition: http://www.sharetrails.org/

EPA Region 8: http://epa.gov/region8/

Greater Yellowstone Coalition: http://www.greateryellowstone.org/