Wilderness has a new foe: snowmobiles

  SEELEY LAKE, Mont.- The February drizzle has done little to dampen the spirits of the crowd here for the Snowmoblivious festival. Snowmobile aficionados from as far away as Washington and Colorado bounce along the shoulders of the main street and buzz through the woods on groomed trails.


"We're out with the whole family," says one rider. "Seeley Lake is one of our favorite sledding spots - even with a little rain."


Locals in this west-central Montana town, pop. 2,000, will tell you that timber is still king in this country, but they've found a new, often noisy queen - tourism. In the summer, the lake hums with the sound of jet skis. Winter recreation keeps the town buzzing in the off-months too, says Curtis Friede, who owns a snowmobile shop in town.


More visitors mean more pressure on limited space. Increasingly, snowmobilers are leaving the groomed trails in search of powder in the high country. The catch is that much of the high country here is federal or tribal wilderness, off limits to motorized users.


Although snowmobilers have been illegally riding in the Mission Mountains Wilderness near Seeley Lake for more than 20 years, trespass problems get worse every year, according to Frank Gillin, fish and game chief on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Foothills around Seeley Lake provide easy access, and logging roads and state-funded snowmobile trails lead right up to the wilderness boundary. As faster, more reliable snowmobiles allow people to ride deeper into the wilderness, those routes multiply and tempt trespass.


Snowmobile trespass is a Montana-wide problem, not just limited to Seeley Lake, says John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association. One Forest Service report, says Gatchell, cited 472 confirmed violations of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness boundary by snowmobilers during the 1995-96 season. Those 472 violations resulted in just seven tickets issued by the Forest Service.


The laws are there: A snowmobiler caught in a wilderness area can face a stiff penalty - up to a $5,000 fine and six months in jail. A second-time offender could lose his sled. Yet chances of being caught are slim to none.


The problem, says Swan Lake forester Remy Pochelon, is that busting a snowmobiler is next to impossible. "Everybody has a black suit and a black helmet and they're on a red or yellow snowmobile doing about 80 miles per hour in a plume of snow." And unlike cars, snowmobiles have no visible license numbers. "I'd have to put on glasses and get down on my knees to read one of those (registration) stickers," says Pochelon.


In Pochelon's eight-year stint on the Swan Lake District, snowmobilers have been prosecuted for trespassing in the Mission on only two occasions. Ironically, the prosecutions stemmed from two sledding accidents. In 1995, Leo Sudan of Bigfork died when he fell from his snowmobile and slid down an embankment into a tree. Less than a year later, Ron Martin, a Swan Lake peat-moss salesman, fell 1,100 feet to his death when the cornice he was riding on broke. Both men died deep inside wilderness boundaries.


Snowmobile trespass is creating "a drive-through wilderness," says John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association. "If we don't get a handle on this now, we might as well accept that there is no more wilderness left."


There is hope of a solution for some of Montana's backcountry. In Seeley Lake and other communities around the Mission Mountains, agencies, activists and snowmobilers may have found a way to keep the wilderness quiet.


Their effort stems from frustration. Kari Gunderson, a Forest Service contracted manager of the Mission Wilderness, says in 17 years she and her partner, Joe Flood, have only caught a few trespassers. But then the judge threw out the cases, she adds.


Gunderson and Flood decided it was time for a new approach. This winter, they joined with Jill Duryee of the Montana Wilderness Association to create a coalition of federal, state and tribal officials, law enforcement officers, environmentalists and snowmobilers dedicated to keeping snowmobilers out of the Mission.


The Forest Service and tribal Fish and Game, have posted more signs at access points and stepped up patrols of popular inroads and aerial surveys of the wilderness boundary. Local sheriffs' offices have also joined the effort.


In Seeley Lake, the Driftriders Snowmobile Club has pitched in by posting maps in shops around town with warnings: "Tribal Land! Wilderness! Stay Out! No-No Land!" Their trail grooming report in the local paper includes reminders that wilderness is off limits.


They have good reason to police themselves. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP), the agency responsible for doling out state gas-tax dollars for trail grooming, has given the Driftriders an ultimatum: Stop trespassing in the Mission or lose your trails near the wilderness boundary. "Our goal is not to get thrown out of the Forest Service Land," says club member Jim Weatherly. "If we police our own people, we won't get thrown out."


Meanwhile, the Montana Wilderness Association has created a form to help back-country users report trespassers, and volunteers have been patrolling the wilderness boundary on weekends.


So far, the new approach seems to work, as no trespasses have been reported in the Mission Wilderness this season. "This couldn't happen without the help of all of the people involved," says Duryee. But the snowmobiling season is far from over, and long spring days may tempt sledders to head for the mountain meadows and bowls.


Still, Forest Service recreation manager Woody Baxter says prevention is the best hope. "Let's educate them with a big sign. Let's give them a warning," he says. "Then, if they go into a wilderness - nail their ass."


For information on volunteer wilderness patrols, contact Jill Duryee, Montana Wilderness Association, 43 Woodland Park Dr. No. 9, Kalispell, MT 59901 or call 406/755-6304.


*Greg Hanscom





Greg Hanscom writes from Missoula, Montana.