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Original Issue


Snowmobiles are great fun and they get you outdoors to winter's wonderlands. Snowmobiles also are ear-shattering, dangerous and damaging to the delicate balance of our ecology. There are good and there are bad snowmobilers—but in both cases it is time for some control

Mr. and Mrs. Frank Look watched apprehensively as a snowmobile snapped and snarled its way up the frozen Chandler River in Jonesboro, Me. The Looks knew that the river ice was thin in spots, nonexistent in others, and at the first faint sound of the vehicle's engine they had phoned around for help. Now, as the couple watched, the snowmobile reached a hole in the ice and disappeared. Rescuers worked for days and found nothing. Six weeks passed, and still nothing was found and no one was reported missing. Thus the booming winter sport of snowmobiling had its first mystery. Several weeks later it chalked up its first fatal head-on collision—snowmobile to snowmobile. It had long since registered its first snowmobile-auto deaths, its first mangled children, its first wholesale vandalisms on snowmobile-back, its first wild animals chased and hounded to death, its first rapes of the primeval wintry silence of the forest. The snowmobile was abroad in the wilds, and almost everywhere it went there was trouble.

As usual, Americans (and Canadians, too, for that matter) are acting on the familiar notion that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Something like half a million snowmobiles will be sold this winter season, and more than one million are now on the trail. In snow-country states like Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota, it is all but impossible to escape the din of the snow vehicles on weekends, and grumbling voyageurs on skis and snowshoes must proceed at their own risk. So must birds and animals. In some places wildlife is proceeding due north, out of range of the snow vehicle, but also out of range of natural and familiar habitats. If the trend were carried to absurdity, game animals would congeal in a tight, quivering pack atop the North Pole. But snowmobiles would not be far behind. They can reach the North Pole, too, as the Plaisted Expedition of 1968 proved.

It will surprise no sincere student of the outdoors that another potentially boonful and pleasurable invention is being used for the wrong reasons by the wrong people in the wrong places. Like its fairweather cousin, the trail bike, the snowmobile can take people where people do not belong. But unlike the trail bike, the snowmobile knows hardly any limitations. The first three-inch snowfall of winter turns the whole countryside into a broad, navigable highway. At a time when everyone else is closest to immobility, the snowmobiler is at his most exhilaratingly free. And uninhibited. And dangerous. The first person he menaces is himself. Consider:

•The sports-loving wife of Quebec's minister of highways led her three children on a snowmobile safari. Under the wheels of a truck, she became Quebec's 32nd snowmobile death of this winter.

•Two snowmobilers were crushed by a freight train near Stratford, N.H. The pounding of their machines kept them from hearing the train; the camouflaging screen of snow thrown up by the snowmobiles obscured them from the engineer's sight.

•In Vermont a snowmobile snapped a chain across a trail. The chain whipped back and killed a snowmobiler following close behind.

•A middle-aged man drowned when his snowmobile went through the ice on Ripogenus Lake in Maine. Rescuers discovered that the speeding machine had traveled 1,000 feet on quarter-inch ice before breaking through.

In the early, primitive days of snowmobiling, such accidents were considered rare and freakish. Now they are considered common. So many snowmobilers have been getting themselves puréed by locomotives that the Chicago and North Western Railway issued a statement reminding the public that "the snowmobiler invariably loses in the event of an accident.... The attractions of railroad property under a heavy coat of snow are illusory." So many snowmobilers have died in collisions with cars and trucks that most states have banned the snow vehicles from the public way, but snowmobilers manage to die anyway—crossing the roads, like chickens, to get to the other side.

John Marsh, Maine's Safety Coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Game, is one of the few state officials with any data or perspective on the problem. Snowmobiling, he says, is demonstrably more dangerous than hunting. "I put 200,000 hunters or so into the woods a year and have only 50 accidents," Marsh says. "Last season there were about 20,000 snowmobiles registered and we had more than 300 accidents." According to the Ontario Safety League, "Snowmobiling may have the highest fatality rate of any recreational activity in the world." The $1.2 billion snowmobile industry is not oblivious to the problem. This year Bombardier (No. 1 in sales) will distribute more than 500,000 safety booklets, but one wishes that top snowmobile executives would stop making statements like this recent one: "When you think about the death rate, though, it's really not too bad. The industry is in its infancy and deaths are expected."

Certainly deaths must be expected, and every man should have the right to go to hell in his own fashion. But what about every man's child? In Palmer, Mass., 5-year-old Paul Thibodeau was thrown from a snowmobile and died of a fractured skull. Not far away, in Greenfield, Mass., 7-year-old Shawn O'Neill was caught in a whirling tread and crushed. A 10-year-old boy in Ashland, Wis. mangled his hand under a snowmobile and a 14-year-old boy in North Windham, Me. almost lost his right arm in a similar accident. Two Quebec teen-agers, lulled into a false sense of distance by the ease of snowmobiling, strayed too far from civilization and froze to death in a blizzard. Despite these and similar incidents, there is hardly a state or province with restrictions on the age of snowmobilers. If a child can see over the windshield (or even if hi cannot), he is eligible. When an 8-year-old boy broke his nose while running a snowmobile in Maine, his parents wrote on the official accident report: "Driving experience: two days." There are children as young as 4 and 5 chauffeuring snowmobiles, though the way accident rates are increasing they probably will not be chauffeuring them long.

Clearly, a large part of the problem is power. When the first 7-hp snowmobiles made their appearance 11 years ago, they whisked their occupants over the snow at speeds below 30 mph. But the industry, taking its cue from Detroit, soon found itself in a merry old horsepower race. Ad copywriters went berserk. "...Designed for speed—plus," they wrote. "50-mph speed in flat country...." "Speeds of 60 mph makes [sic] this the ideal sled for rugged country." "Our machine tore up the world's biggest tracks.... Then we dropped that engine in a beautifully engineered snowmobile. Shazaam!" To support the ads, cold rodders kept pushing the world's snowmobile speed record up and up. (It is now 114.5 mph, but an experimental model has gone 170 over a short course and its designer says the machine is capable of much more.)

The cliché advertisement became an airborne snowmobile, its goggled driver crouched over the windshield, his knees flexed and his clothes rippling. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Gazette reported: "Unfortunately, no doubt due to the number of TV advertisements depicting stunt driving and jumping, many amateur drivers try to emulate these 'hell drivers' with the result that the average production-line machine, not equipped for such sport, ends up smashed and the driver seriously injured or killed." The American Medical Association reported that jumping and other snowmobile lollygagging were prime causes of back injuries, some of the delayed-fuse variety. Drs. Stanley E. Chism and A. Bradley Soule wrote in the AMA Journal: "The majority of injuries result from the imprudent operation of the machine rather than from mechanical defects in it. Snowmobile advertisements often depict machine and operator flying through the air 10 to 12 feet above the ground. Such pictures probably stimulate sales but do not promote the rational use of the vehicles." All hail Evinrude, then. One of the company's magazine ads showed the inevitable flying snowmobiler, but added a warning: "Leave this to the 'pros'—it's tricky." Tricky is an understatement. A snowmobile is not the most stable of vehicles when it is running on hard-packed snow. In the air it is a big, hot, aerophobic, 300-pound blob with a whirling underside of steel and hard-rubber cleats. In the air, one would be safer on a pterodactyl.

Most snowmobilers are personable and law-abiding, if sometimes overebullient, but any sport that emphasizes speed is bound to attract the wild ones, even as motorcycling and drag racing and surfing have had their troubles with hooligan elements. On Michigan's Upper Peninsula the wintertime vandalizing of summer cabins became a major problem until police outfitted themselves with their own snowmobiles. In Colorado snowmobilers chugged up the eastern slope of the Continental Divide to see who could be first to strip a crashed airplane. In Anchorage a property owner was badly beaten when he tried to remove six snowmobilers from his land. In Quebec, two men robbed a bank of $4,500 and made their escape, unchased, on snowmobiles. When James Pelrin of Revere, Mass. bought a snowmobile of his own and gaily rode out to his snowbound summer cabin, he found four couples cooking steaks. They explained that they had been snowmobiling to his place for years. Along the canals that lace the Lake St. Clair area northeast of Detroit, children's hockey games were broken up by marauding gangs of snowmobilers, and nearby recreation areas reported that snowmobiling ruffians were chasing women and children off the slopes. The Kings Hill Ski Area in Montana roped off its runs, but the snow vehicles slashed through anyway. Snowmobiles have run down rows of freshly planted corn in west central Minnesota and destroyed the crop; they have ripped up the plastic pipes of a model maple-syrup farm in New England; they have torn down the blueberry bushes of commercial growers, and they have done thousands of dollars' worth of damage to the arbor vitae and Japanese maples of infuriated exurbanites.

These, of course, are the actions of an irresponsible few. In the long run, they may be of less consequence than the actions of responsible operators—those well-meaning souls who roar into the woods in winter for a single reason: because they love the outdoors and the animals and the snow; they may love them, in fact, to death. The first unnatural ingredient they add to the forest is noise—ear-splitting, pounding, reverberating noise. Defenders of the snow vehicles argue that they are no worse than the chain saw, which has become as common a sound in some deep forests as the jackhammer in the city. "But there's one difference," says Lloyd H. Clark, the former Maine game warden who now guides people on hunting trips. "The snowmobile doesn't stay in one place. When you come on any species of wildlife with the snowmobile, you'll find that species on the move, with a wild look of terror in his eyes." In Quebec the deer bag dropped from 12,400 in 1964 to 4,000 in 1969; noise pollution from snowmobiles was a major cause, Ontario tried to solve the problem by closing its deer season before the first snowfall this year.

"We just don't know how badly wildlife needs the dead silence of winter," says Montana conservationist G. George Ostrom, "and we may never find out. By the time studies are completed, the harm may already be done."

According to Allan Loughrey, deputy director of Canadian Wildlife, "Most animals will accommodate to noise in one way or another. But not during breeding season. Particularly animals with high metabolic rates, like minks." Another Canadian Wildlife expert, Dr. Philip Corbet, says, "The hypothesis I am working on is that the irritation to animals is comparable to the irritation to humans. The radius of sound effect of snowmobile noise is about two miles, and that is considerable."

The sad paradox of the snowmobile's existence is that it reaches its peak of mobility at a time when other inhabitants of the forest—animals, birds, rangers, wardens—are at their least mobile and effective. Beaver trapping in Maine is reaching dangerous levels now that trappers can race from set to set on snowmobiles. Bobcats are being annihilated in certain areas by hunters who track them by snowmobile, then release dogs that have been towed along behind on sleds. In Wisconsin sheep have been staked on frozen lakes to attract coyotes, which are then hounded to death by packs of snowmobilers. Until Minnesota expanded a model law prohibiting harassment of all animals by snowmobiles, some of its hunters used to enjoy ganging up on foxes and running them down from the backs of snowmobiles. "The hunting was fun while it lasted," said Bob Allison, Minnesota Twins' outfielder and once an ardent practitioner of the sport. Allison now snowmobiles cross-country for fun instead of, as he once said, "sitting inside by the fire and watching television." Some other Minnesotans, also bored by the fire and the tube, spent their winters chasing moose and deer to exhaustion and death.

Wildlife experts are agreed that such practices cannot be extirpated by halfway measures. The mere presence of a snowmobile in the wildest parts of some forests is a hazard to wildlife, even if the driver of the vehicle is a little old lady from Dubuque with an advanced degree in bird watching and a tendency to bawl at movies like Born Free. "The wilderness species are sensitive to the intrusion of man, particularly in winter when the snowmobile revs up," says Stewart Brandborg, executive director of The Wilderness Society. "December through March are the hardest months on wildlife. They are faced with extremes of temperature, deep snow and minimum food and are generally in their weakest condition of the year. Any exertion, rush to run or fly, fear, excitement, hurts them—even kills them.... It's ironic that at a time when there's a growing interest in protecting the natural environment, there's also a growing interest in one of the greatest potentials for ruining it—the snowmobile."

The menace is both blatant and subtle. A well-intentioned snowmobiler packing down a trail in deep woods has no idea of the ecological destruction he may be wreaking. As Dr. Corbet explains, "Snow is an excellent insulator, a natural protection for mice and other small animals. But the snow must be thick enough, and it must not be packed. It ceases to insulate when packed. Snowmobile tracks are permanent barriers in the brush for animals under the snow." Far more than the fate of a few mice is involved. Naturalists recognize that the wilderness is all of a piece, and the death of mice can mean the death of elk and moose and bears. Tampering with the food chain can cause unforeseen results in any environment, wild or urban. In Alberta, Canada farmers have been complaining about the proliferation of grain-eating gophers and mice, and only recently has a correlation been established between the furry pestilence and snowmobiling. Farmers in the region have been whiling away the long winter days by running down and killing coyotes. So many hides have come on the market in Alberta that the price has dropped from $25 to $5. Meanwhile, the rodents that make up the bulk of the coyotes' cuisine are cleaning up on the farmers' grain.

What is to be done? The recent International Snowmobile Congress in Duluth provided a start. Men of apparent goodwill grappled with such problems as designation of trails, registration, law enforcement and self-policing by snowmobile users. But the history of natural history shows that special-interest groups seldom succeed in policing themselves, as witness the lumber interests or the oilmen or the Danish salmon fishers. "For the snowmobile lout," conservationist Michael Nadel wrote in an editorial in The Living Wilderness, "only the hard hand of the law and outraged public opinion can make an impression." A few states, like Minnesota, have made a start by accepting the proposition that snowmobiles can be at least as toxic as DDT and by legislating accordingly. Other states are far in trail, and some have hardly any restrictions on snowmobiling. Massachusetts and Colorado, two states where the sport is popular, do not even require registration of the lethal vehicles. In Michigan, where 80,000 snow machines are registered, State Police Colonel Fredrick Davids says the laws on the subject are "woefully inadequate," and warns that the soaring death rate will soon guarantee that the sport will "attract only the foolhardy and the reckless."

For the most part, conservationists are agreed that if the silence and the sanctity of the woods are to be preserved, and if nature's immutable laws are not to be flouted any further, all snow states must consider legislation that would:

Bar vast areas of public lands to snowmobiles, limit them to trails specifically marked for the noisy sport, and bar them flatly from public roads. The aim should be severe limitation, not laissez-faire expansion of a craze that is already out of control.

Forbid hunting or trapping from snowmobiles, hunting or chasing game with snowmobiles, riding snowmobiles into hunting areas during game seasons, or indeed using snow vehicles in any way at all connected with hunting.

Require registration and licensing with state wildlife departments and/or motor-vehicle departments, application of oversized numbers on front cowlings, and serial numbers embedded in the tread so that snowmobiles will leave an identifiable trail wherever they go (just as the Sno-Jet snowmobile now repeats its name in the snow).

The alternative to such rigorous legislation would seem to be the passive acceptance of another forest pollutant, the continued erosion of man's fundamental right to peace and quiet, and more of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. A snowmobile dealer accidentally expressed the gravamen of the matter to The New York Times. Extolling the wonders of the sport, he was quoted as saying, "A new world has been created in the winter months." Apparently no one thought to ask him: What was wrong with the old one?


SAILING through the air with the greatest of ease can be fancy. It also can be foolhardy.