Abominable Snowmen

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Where once a deep covering of snow meant a world of muffled sound and privacy, it now provides, in more and more parts of the country, a limitless speedway for some one million snowmobiles. The machines, which whine like chain saws, are charging into back-country forests and across frozen lakes heretofore unrcachable in winter except to a few intrepid wilderness enthusiasts, and so, not surprisingly, they are stirring considerable furor among conservationists throughout the country.

The first snowmobile was introduced only eleven years ago by Bombadicr Ltd. of Canada as a motorized replacement for the Eskimos’ and trappers’ dog team. Two hundred and twenty-five machines were sold. This season’s sales are expected to hit four hundred thousand. Nine out of ten snowmobiles arc bought purely for fun, and price tags ranging from $600 to $2,000 are no deterrent. The average snowmobile is a two- or three-man vehicle with two steel runners in front steered by a handlebar and propelled by a wide tractorlike tread that spins against snow. Usual speeds are fifteen to thirty miles an hour, but the gasoline engine can be souped up enough to make eighty possible. No driving license is required; anyone of any age can hop on and head for the wilderness. Among the hazards to environmental quality posed by the snowmobile—which is only the forerunner of a growing variety of off-road vehicles that arc designed to negotiate sand, mud, swamp, and snow—are the following:

The loud noise of the snowmobile’s engine is a source of possible damage to the hearing of those who ride it and an outright insult to anyone in the vicinity seeking peace and quiet. The effects of noise on wildlife are now being tested by the government. One industry reprcsentative commented to Malcolm Baldwin of the Conservation Foundation, “These machines could be half as noisy with a little extra cost, but they wouldn’t sell the American male just does not want a quiet snowmobile.”

The possibility of overfishing remote lakes is made vivid by a U.S. Forest Service report that “Pierz Lake, 16 miles off Gunflint !rail in Minnesota, can be reached only by a six-hour canoe and portage trip in the summer, but a reporter counted 67 snowmobiles and 120 fishermen there in mid-January.” They took out 556 pounds of two-pound Rsh, about a year’s production.

Seedlings and young trees brittle and dry in winter are easily damaged. A twenty-six-acre, three-year-old planting of Norway and white pines was ruined by snowmobiles at the Wilderness Research Foundation in Ely, Minnesota. Paper companies with forest lands in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have also reported damage to young trees.

Complaints about snowmobilers running down deer and other animals hampered by deep snow are commonplace. A particularly outrageous incident of the snowmobile killing of sixteen deer bucks, does, and fawns—ocurred last March on national forest land near Virginia, Minnesota. Some of the victims had been used for target practice; some had been sadistically run down by the machines and left to die of exhaustion. Several states have laws protecting wild game from snowmobile harassment, but non-game animals—foxes, coyotes, polar bears, mountain lions—are mostly not covered. A “sport” has developed of pursuing the coyote and finishing it off with a pistol.

Litter is developing into a serious problem, reports the Forest Service, “because snow provides such an excellent temporary expedient for covering empty fuel containers and other litter.”

Private land and wilderness areas are completely open to intrusion. It is difhcult if not impossible for a landowner to physically prevent trespass, since the machines can go anywhere there is snow, including right over fences. Vandalism of once-remote cabins is an increasing problem.

The snowmobile is not about to go away, but its use can be regulated. The Conservation Foundation in Washington, D.d., is at work on a report of suggested policies for management of the snowmobile, and it is hoped that the world snowmobile conference in Duluth, Minnesota, this month will make significant progress toward that end.

”… a large part of the pollution control equipment sold today is used to clean water coming into a plant for use m manufacturing rather than tu cleanse it before discharge. ” Business Week October 4, 1969