Road rage on the information superhighway: Not since William Clark was mistaken for an elk and shot in the seat of his pants has there been this much bad blood swirling around America’s most famous intrepid twosome. With the Lewis & Clark bicentennial rapidly approaching, a feud has erupted between Montana’s tourism wing and a private company over their dueling L&C Web sites.

Lewis & Clark 200, a Great Falls-based company whose operations are headquartered in Missoula, owns more than 700 Internet domain names related to Lewis and Clark. All the sites, from www.LewisAndClarkAntlerArt.com to www.LewisAndClarkHealthFood.com are interlinked to form a huge network of travel information sites, with the main one being www.LewisandClark200.com. The conflict arose when Travel Montana, the state’s tourism promotion bureau, threw its hat in the Lewis and Clark ring by launching www.nwlewisclark.com.

“Our beef is, in the governor’s economic development plan, she talks about prioritizing high-tech, communications, and e-commerce companies,” says Brent Lane, president of Lewis & Clark 200. “We’re the biggest single one she has going in Montana and we have to compete with Travel Montana, which has developed a stand of specific competition against us.”

Betsy Baumgart, administrator for the Montana Promotion Division, which oversees Travel Montana, denies the agency is trying to compete with Lewis and Clark 200.

“It’s unfortunate they think we are competing with them because that is not our role,” Baumgart says. “I wish them success. I think they’ve done some real innovative things.”

Lane dates the dispute to when a link exchange between the two Web sites went horribly awry. Lane says Lewis and Clark 200 put a Travel Montana link on their page, but that Travel Montana refused to reciprocate. Baumgart counters that Lewis and Clark 200 wanted their link to go on the main Visit Montana homepage, which is kept link-free, but that they were offered a link on the Lewis and Clark site.

Now Lewis and Clark 200 has launched www.bigskyjobs.com, which pleads its case against Travel Montana and spotlights the rest of their 1,400 Montana-related domain names. It includes charts and figures that suggest the return on the investment of bed-tax dollars in Travel Montana has been declining over the last 12 years.

“I believe that not only the tourists soon to arrive, but also the citizens of this great state could benefit far more if the operations of Travel Montana be left to private enterprise, and the tax dollars thereby saved be redirected in a more constructive fashion,” says Joan Cook, CEO of Lewis and Clark 200 in an open letter to Governor Judy Martz.

Baumgart insists that the state’s Lewis and Clark site is part of Travel Montana’s broader mission to promote Montana tourism. “There’s a lot of interest in Lewis and Clark right now,” Baumgart says. “So if we eliminated the site we’d have to do a printed piece or something else to accommodate the tens of thousands of calls we get looking for information.”

As for ways to better spend the tax dollars saved if Travel Montana were turned over to free enterprise, Cook suggests spending more on the state’s travel infrastructure to prepare for a influx of some 10 million tourists expected in the next four years. She writes in her letter: “We might need porta-potties more than we need promotion of Montana as a tourist destination for the next few years!

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