Snowmobiles and Public Lands Unacceptable Impacts on a Winter Landscape

The editorial page of the Colorado Springs Gazette got pretty steamed up last winter. The move to limit snowmobiles in national parks, it said, is motivated by emotional, not rational concerns. Indeed, said the Gazette, “The targeting of snowmobiles seems motivated by a sort of snobbery—a feeling among some extremists that access to public lands should be limited to those who recreate in certain non-mechanized, environmentally correct ways. And if these groups get their way, what today are “parks,” purposely set aside for widespread but responsible public enjoyment, will be transformed into de-facto wilderness areas, from which all but the heartiest backcountry adventurers will be excluded.”

Snowmobilers are wreaking havoc on protected public lands.

The paper would have a point if snowmobiles were indeed a benign way for Americans to enjoy much-loved places like Yellowstone Park. But that position contradicts a mountain of evidence.

According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, in 2006 there were just over 2.2 million snowmobiles registered for use in North America. It’s likely that less than one percent of the population owns one, but they’re still wreaking havoc on protected public lands.

Snowmobiles are frequently perceived to be less destructive than other “thrillcraft.” They are allowed on lands administrated by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, national wildlife refuges and more than 30 national parks. Many state parks and forests also permit snowmobiling. They also go where most all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are banned. The Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, for instance, keeps out ATVs but allows snowmobiles. They’re also permitted in some areas of New York’s Adirondack State Park, where ATVs were recently prohibited.

Unseen Damage

But snowmobiles are hardly benign. Many older models—like older-model jet skis—use two-stroke engines, which can leak as much as one-third of their fuel mixture, unburned, directly into the environment. These emissions can have significant impacts on air and water quality, aquatic life, vegetation and public health.

When these deadly pollutants are deposited into the snowpack, the spring melt releases a toxic, acid brew into aquatic ecosystems which can negatively impact amphibian survival, fish productivity, and fish growth.

And a two-stroke snowmobile, according to emissions data from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), emits more smog-forming pollution in a single hour than a modern car creates in a year. Despite the significant amount of pollutants emitted by these vehicles, the Environmental Protection Agency only began to regulate snowmobile emissions in 2002 under the Clean Air Act. Current regulations, however, are extraordinarily weak, not even remotely in line with the emissions reductions made in modern snowmobiles powered with four-stroke engines.

While two-stroke snowmobiles are still manufactured, most new snowmobiles are powered with cleaner and quieter four-stroke engines. And while this new technology has mitigated some of the environmental impacts, the four-stroke engines still emit more pollutants and are louder than a modern automobile engine, disturbing both human visitors and wildlife.

A number of studies have clearly documented the adverse impact that snowmobiles have on wildlife. These include displacement from preferred habitats, elevated stress and increased use of scarce energy reserves in order to flee from the approaching snowmobiles. The sheer speed and size of the vehicles also leads to accidents with animals like bison. And by compacting snow under their skis and treads, snowmobiles create energy-efficient travel routes that can alter species distribution and movement.

One national parks study found higher levels of a particular stress hormone among wolves at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota (where snowmobiles are common) compared with Isle Royale National Park in Michigan (where the machines are banned). What’s more, the stress hormone increased as snowmobiling intensity rose, almost doubling in areas with heavy use.

North American snowmobilers spend $20 billion on their hobby annually, but the sport is in decline because of changing winter conditions (see main story). The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA) defends itself with charts and graphs that it says demonstrate a low level of impact. They show, for instance, a dramatic growth in the Yellowstone bison herd, from 819 in the first year of snowmobiles to 3,900 in 2006. The group also claims that only 13 percent of bison show “some reaction” to snowmobiles on the park road systems, and that seven percent simply “move away.” The trade group also contrasts the 1.8 million vehicles that annually visit Yellowstone to 40,000 a year projected snowmobile visits.

According to ISMA, “The National Park Service recognizes the new technologies the snowmobile manufacturers have brought to the market. The new vehicles are environmentally sound and exceed all standards put forth by the EPA and by the National Park Service proposed winter use plan. “Snowmobiling,” the group says, “does no environmental harm to [Yellowstone] Park. The government studies support the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone as the preferred method to enjoy the park and view all the winter wonders that nature has provided us in Yellowstone.”

Excerpted from <,i>Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation, edited by George Wuerthner, distributed by Chelsea Green.