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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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 writes
from Missoula, Montana.