By Donella Meadows
–March 19, 1998–
Snowmobiles continued to vroom unhampered through Yellowstone National Park this winter, though beleaguered park officials had intended to close some of the trails.
Environmentalists pounded for trail closure. Their ostensible purpose was to prevent bison from following machine-packed paths out of the park. But they had other reasons. On winter weekends the exhaust from thousands of two-stroke engines raises carbon monoxide levels in Yellowstone to the highest measured anywhere in the nation — higher than in cities. Gatekeepers at park entrances suffer from dizziness, headaches and nausea. Snowriders and skiers in what should be a wilderness breathe blue-fumed air that flunks federal health standards.
A more fundamental reason for the demand for snowmobile control, I would guess, is that some people want to ski or snowshoe far away from the sound of internal combustion engines.
At the first mention of trail closure, the snowmobilers pounded back, of course. People who like to go vroom in the outback may or may not be more numerous than lovers of silence, but they have two political advantages. They don’t mind looking and talking tough. And they have strong backing from the makers, sellers, renters, and servicers of the machines. The town of West Yellowstone, Montana, on the edge of the park, rents out 1400 snowmobiles on a good weekend. Snow tourists bring $30 million a year into the town economy. Honda, Kawasaki, and other machine-makers fund the Blue Ribbon Coalition and other organizations that lobby to keep off-road vehicles unregulated.
In Yellowstone the machines have won, for now anyway. The silence-lovers, whose style is not to yell at public meetings but to claim the moral high ground and go to court, will fight back.
Living in snow country myself, I watch the Yellowstone battle with emotion. Once I wrote on the Internet my uncensored opinion of snowmobiles. I hate the bleepin’ things, I admitted. I hate the noise and the tearing up of the ground. (On our pastures snowmobile trails leave brown streaks that green up late and grow poorly). I hate the scaring of wildlife and the garbage tossed in the woods. The snowmobile clubs work hard to police irresponsible behavior, but there are always bad actors, and I resent picking up after them. I hate the air pollution and the use of fossil fuel for what looks to me like trivial purposes. Most of all I hate the chain-saw whine.
After I put out that stream of opinion, I ducked, knowing what normally comes back. It’s our way of getting out in the winter. It’s good, clean fun. It’s the basis of our whole social life. We have just as much right to be out there on public land as you have. And if you cut us off from your private land, well, we can think up lots of small, nasty reprisals for bad neighbors.
All that is usually stated in much less polite terms than I have used here.
But what came back instead, to my surprise, was a chorus of agreement, plus some chiding from folks who wanted me, while I was condemning recreational motors, to include trail bikes, dune buggies, jet-skis and speedboats.
I felt the way I did when it suddenly became OK to say “well, yes, I DO mind if you smoke.” I’m not alone! Those of us who have been suffering in silence can find each other and raise our voices. Maybe the political ground is shifting. Maybe it’s becoming possible to say, hey, you’re good friends, I like you, I just dislike this one thing you do. Could we talk about doing it in a way that doesn’t annoy other people?
I do think we could work things out, in Yellowstone and elsewhere. We could back off and recognize that everyone has rights, everyone is a co-owner of the public lands, no one should be imposing noise or silence or pollution or cross-country skiing on everyone else.
It seems totally sensible, for example, to require emission standards for wilderness vehicles like those we have for cars. The motor-heads would benefit from that more than anyone else.
It would seem only fair to allow motors some places, but not all places. Sometimes I think our extremism on both sides comes from the fear that the other side will win EVERYTHING — machines everywhere, or machines nowhere. Why couldn’t we could divide the off-road public space — 50-50 is probably as good a ratio as any — and solemnly swear there will be no encroachment, so we can all relax and enjoy our half?
And here’s a humble request. Could we honor the principle of private property, so landowners who don’t want machines on their fields could say so without grumbles, threats, beer cans on their lawns, bullets through their windows, or other uncivilized feedback?
I have a final suggestion. Maybe more of a question, an honest attempt to understand. Do the machines have to be noisy? Why not run them with electric motors so they’re quiet and they don’t emit a trail of pollution?
A friend of mine, who went through a vroom-vroom phase himself, heard me ask that and laughed. The whole point, he said, is to go real fast with a big, throbbing engine between your legs.
Nah, no way, I said. Surely we wouldn’t spend billions defending the Middle East, pollute our parks, irritate our neighbors and derail the climate of the planet just for that!
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998