The Snowmobile Lobby’s Snow Job

Earth Island News

Bluewater Network

The International Flat Earth Society (FES) is a nonprofit organization opposed to the idea that the Earth is spherical. Members believe that “the known, inhabited world is flat” and that the tenets of modern science are a “way-out occult concoction of jibberish theory-theology.”

Most American’s would be shocked by FES’ positions. But they might be even more shocked to learn that the snowmobile industry and some of its supporters share the FES’ deep sense of denial and a stubborn rejection of any scientific evidence that does not support their beliefs.

The snowmobile lobby’s statements on the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks demonstrate an eerie kinship with the attitudes of the FES. For example, snowmobile lobbyists continue to characterize as “pure fiction” any claim that their machines degrade air and water quality.

Snowmobile advocates argue that any environmental damage caused by snowmobiles simply disappears with the snow melts. When presented with overwhelming evidence of ongoing and persistent damage, these apologists spin the harm as a positive, characterizing machine noise and erosion as “signs of progress and beauty.”

Some snowmobile supporters, who understand the difficulty of refuting the growing evidence of snowmobile damage, resort to demonizing civil servants in the hope of sabotaging the regulatory process. Federal employees are often cast in a negative light and accused of being “hell-bent” on locking up federal lands while pushing an agenda that “attacks rural Americans.” Moreover, civil servants are accused of manipulating public processes. For example, the snowmobile industry has argued that the Park Service extended the last period of public comment only to accommodate the agenda of environmental organizations.

The snowmobile industry’s growing frenzy should not distract the public from the troublesome facts about the problems caused by snowmobiles in our national parks.

Two-stroke motors power nearly all snowmobiles on the market today. Recent research by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) confirms that two-stroke engines spew 25 to 30 percent of their gas-and-oil mixture unburned out the tailpipe. Studies by the University of Denver found that, although Yellowstone’s snowmobiles represent less than 7 percent of the park’s vehicle traffic, they are responsible for roughly 27 percent of the park’s carbon monoxide (CO) pollution and 77 percent of its hydrocarbon (HC) pollution.

CARB’s examination also found that so-called “cleaner and quieter” thrillcraft engines do not solve all air and water quality problems. In fact, these new engines can emit pollutants - such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and formaldehyde - at greater levels than comparable two-stroke engines. Moreover, “cleaner and quieter” snowmobiles are unlikely to reduce the machine’s impact upon wildlife, public safety and traffic congestion.

Wildlife biologists across North America are documenting the damage snowmobiles inflict on wildlife. Studies near Grand Teton found that snowmobiles - even when restricted to groomed trails - push moose out of preferred winter habitats, thereby reducing their ability to find food and conserve energy.

Snowmobiles also impact wildlife from great distances and can change the dynamics of entire populations. Canadian scientists have found that snowmobiles can spook caribou from more than a quarter-mile away. At Yellowstone, a 20-year study discovered that the groomed trails built to accommodate snowmobiles were encouraging the westward migration of bison out of Yellowstone and into Montana. In Montana, state livestock officials capture or kill the bison, fearing that they may expose cattle to disease. When the bison are removed, resident predator species, such as wolves and grizzly bears, lose an important food source.

Snowmobiles blast noise at levels similar to that of a busy city street. The noise carries great distances, shattering the tranquility of the park and disrupting the enjoyment of other park visitors. At Grand Teton, snowmobiles on groomed roads can easily be heard a mile away. In Yellowstone, a study found that visitors to the Old Faithful geyser were subjected to snowmobile noise more than 90 percent of the time.

Snowmobiling is a dangerous sport. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, roughly 10,000 people are treated every year in emergency rooms for snowmobile-related injuries. Furthermore, a recent study by Michael G. Landen, MD found that people who snowmobile frequently are almost nine times more likely to suffer death or injury in accidents than automobile drivers on a per-mile comparison. During one holiday weekend this past winter, nine snowmobile riders were killed in Michigan alone.

The snowmobile industry asserts that a snowmobile ban will cripple the park’s gateway economies, but the opposite may be true. In March 2001, the Park Service prohibited snowmobile operation due to a lack of snow. West Yellowstone’s records show that during the month-long ban, resort receipts were up more than 66 percent as compared to the previous March. These records indicate that communities surrounding the park need not rely solely on income derived from snowmobile riders. In fact, snowmobile operations may be hurting their long-term economic survival.

A snowmobile prohibition in the parks will greatly improve air quality, reduce wildlife harassment, restore natural sounds, protect public safety and may benefit the local economies.

Common sense requires that sound public policy, such as the phaseout of snowmobiles, be based upon fact and careful study. Unfortunately, the industry’s denial and hysteria threaten to undermine the process. Late in 2000, the snowmobile industry sued to overturn an environmental impact statement (EIS) that would have phased out snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton by the winter of 2003-2004. (The Bush administration has capitulated to the industry and agreed to draft a second Environmental Impact Statement.)

If Yellowstone is to be saved, the Park Service must hear from the overwhelming majority of citizens who support the removal of these damaging thrillcraft. At the end of the last comment period in 2001, 82 percent of all letters expressed a preference for removing snowmobiles from the park.

Most Americans would agree that it would be unwise to allow the Flat Earth Society to set policy for NASA. A growing number of Americans now are asking why the narrow views of the snowmobile industry should be used to determine environmental policy for our national parks.

Bluewater Goes Independent
In April, the Bluewater Network became an independent project. Please see the joint announcement in “Making Waves.”

Sean Smith is Public Lands Director for Bluewater and a former US National Park Ranger.

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