Park Service Investigates Snowmobile Use

Last year a coalition of environmental groups challenged the NationalPark Service, saying that it was violating its own mandate by allowingsnowmobile use on designated trails in the parks. The Great Lakes RadioConsortium’s Shula Neuman reports that the challenge to the park systemhas prompted the Service’s Midwest officials to monitor just what kindof impact snowmobiles are having on their parks:


Last year a coalition of environmental groups challenged the National Park
Service, saying that it was violating its own mandate by allowing snowmobile
use on designated trails in the parks. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Shula Neuman reports that the challenge to the park system has prompted
the Service’s Midwest officials to monitor just what kind of impact
snowmobiles are having on their parks.

Pictured Rocks National Park sits on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It boasts
42 miles of shoreline along Lake Superior, scenic cliffs and sand dunes. In
the winter, the park’s average snowfall of 29-inches attracts about
15-thousand snowmobilers. Park superintendent Grant Peterson says that most
of those snowmobilers are locals who know where they can and cannot travel
and are generally respectful of the park’s regulations. As a result,
snowmobilers and other winter recreationists get along pretty well. Still,
some skiers have expressed concern about the noise and exhaust that
snowmobiles produce. Peterson says it’s those issues as well as some less
tangible ones that need to be resolved.

“The biggest issue is how do we measure the impact.. there’s a
sociological component. Do other winter users find it has an adverse impact
on their enjoyment of the lakeshore with respect to snowmobilers.”

The quantity of snowmobilers in the national parks in the Western states
prompted a coalition of environmental groups, called the Bluewater Network,
to assert that snowmobiles were harming the environment. That’s because the
machines’ two-stroke engines release around 100 times more carbon monoxide
and 300-times more hydrocarbons into the air than cars. They also say, the
noise produced by snowmobiles disturbs wildlife. Their concern is that the
park service wasn’t doing enough about these problems. Senior advisor at the
Department of the Interior, Destry Jarvis, says that the Bluewater Network
was correct: current snowmobile regulations violated executive orders
established in the 1970s that mandated protecting the natural resources in
the parks above all other uses.

“The issue before us is, is this standard of it’s OK on frozen lakes
and unplowed roads in and of itself meet the standard of the executive order
and we concluded that it did not.”

To correct the inconsistency, the National Parks Service is expected to
release proposed changes to snowmobiling regulations in early October.
According to Jarvis, the changes would generally prohibit snowmobiles in
national parks with a few exceptions, such as permitting snowmobilers to
traverse the parks to get to private lands inside or nearby. Individual
superintendents can make the regulations even stricter if they determine
that snowmobiles are still harming the parks. But this requires monitoring
snowmobile use. And as Associate Regional Director Jim Loach explains, in
the Midwest there has been no unified monitoring system.

“You need the basic information first. What are the numbers that we
are talking about. Until we sit down and talk we don’t have those answers
and that’s one of the reasons we are coming together now, and that’s another
reason why there have been proposed changes on a national basis.”

For snowmobile activists though, the parks service is moving too fast to
tighten its restrictions on snowmobile use. Jeff Mausaulf, an activist with
the Snowmobile Association of Minnesota, acknowledges that snowmobile
engines aren’t the most efficient, but argues its unfair to target
snowmobilers with stricter regulations

“Snowmobilers are by and large environmentalists. They enjoy the
great outdoors. Anyone who is outside when its 25 below out and they love to
be out there, they want to protect the outdoors, they are not out there to
destroy it, they are out there to enjoy it and will do whatever it takes to
preserve that.”

Masaulf also says that there’s a difference between Midwest snowmobilers and
their western counterparts. In the west, smaller parks are crowded with
users who are there for only a few hours at a time. In the Midwest, he
says, fewer snowmobilers use extensive trail networks throughout the region
for long trips. Midwest park rangers acknowledge this difference too. And
they say that’s why Midwest parks are less likely to tighten the proposed
regulations. Still, the Interior Department’s Jarvis says that until each
park knows just how snowmobiles are affecting the park and until the
snowmobile industry comes out with a clean burning engine, the park service
has to establish more restrictive snowmobile regulations.

“We don’t want to prohibit people from using the parks in the
wintertime. It’s just that this particular machine violates the standards
that the parks are managed under.”

Midwest park officials met recently to establish a region-wide method for
monitoring the impact snowmobiles have on the parks. These systems should be
in place this winter. In about a year the EPA is expected to come out with
its regulations for quieter, more efficient snowmobile engines. However,
that may be too late. If it’s up to the park service, this winter may be
the last time snowmobiles travel on federal parkland routes. For the Great
Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Shula Neuman in St. Louis.