The West from a snowmobile: a 50 million-acre theme park

  • Snowmobile rider


It was fortunate that I could ski faster than my friend Mark Tokarski, because, like a 200-pound mosquito in a red stocking cap, he was pursuing me, belting out this incredibly annoying whining sound: "YEEEEENNNNGGGHHHH." Foolishly, as we shushed along cross-country trails on the Bitterroot Divide, I had commented what a rare pleasure it was to hear the sound of snow plop from over-laden pine branches, rather than the whine of snowmobiles.

"Do you want me to make that noise, so you feel at home?" Tokarski asked, and without waiting for a reply, launched into his impression of a snowmobile engine. I rewarded him at the top of the pass with a well-packed snowball.

Regrettably, real snow machines are not so easily dealt with. Advocates claim snowmobile use in Montana went up 73 percent in the last decade, and U.S. sales doubled between 1992 and 1996. Powerful new machines, no longer prone to sinking in deep powder, go virtually anywhere there is snow cover - even areas that are officially closed to snowmobiles. YEENNGGHH.

Snow machines are not entirely a bad thing, I sometimes reflect. I wholeheartedly support recreational use of our public lands, and folks ought to enjoy the great outdoors in winter. As the International Snowmobile Industry Association once commented, "The sport of snowmobiling has acted ... to greatly mollify the sedentary nature of winter activities."

I'm sensitive to the charge that environmentalists want to lock up the West and make it into some kind of huge, empty preserve where, clad in polar fleece, we can freely seek hot springs, quaint cappuccino shops and a mate with the right kind of trust fund. Still, I believe we could do worse to the West; we could turn it into a 50-million-acre amusement park with a Wall Drug in every town, jetboats on every river, and snowmobiles on every mountain.

For a glimpse of this nightmare, take Wallace, Idaho. At first glance, it looks like just another small town on I-90. But it is much more, or much less, depending on your perspective. The town's boosters tout Wallace as "the world's largest snowmobile destination," featuring 1,000 miles of ATV trails. Silver Country Inc., a local public relations firm, describes the area as "the Waikiki of the 21st century ... a recreation preserve ... the world's largest Eco-Disneyland."

"Picture yourself going back to a time straight out of a Clint Eastwood Western," the company says in one brochure. "Where horses were tied up in front of the saloon, now parking is reserved for Arctic Cats, Yamahas and Ski Doos ... From Lookout Pass you can open up the throttle on a 55-mile loop deep into the Montana wilds, and right up to the front of Old West casinos."

Freedom, Wallace suggests, is making your own rules and conquering the backcountry without ever getting off your butt. Driving a machine through America's last wildlands is a shorthand claim to outdoor skills, self-reliance and other frontier virtues. Instead of spending a lifetime in the woods, now all it takes to become Jim Bridger is the money to rent a Yamaha Wolverine 4x4.

New technology is allowing snowmobiles and ATVs to invade territory they couldn't get to in the past. Sales are also up. Trail-legal ATVs that go 60 miles-per-hour now outsell street motorcycles, and snowmobile sales are soaring.

If the ORV/theme park experience were simply one choice of many available in the West, its rise would be less disturbing. Unlike hikers, hunters, equestrians and others who prefer "quiet trails," however, ORVs do not complement existing use, they replace it. In a 1994 University of Montana survey, 91 percent of trail hikers said walking is incompatable with motorcycles, and three quarters of cross-country skiers couldn't stomach the presence of snowmobiles.

Yet the state of Montana spends nearly $1 million a year promoting ATV and snowmobile use, and an astonishing 58 percent of national forest trails in Montana are open to some type of motorized vehicle.

If we are acting out our national myths astride snowmobiles, if we accept that driving an incredibly pollutive machine through the last wildlands of the lower 48 is "freedom," then we are dooming ourselves and our children to a future as consumptive, insubstantial and debilitatingly mindless as those very rides.

In the same way that sharing a family meal is more rewarding than eating a TV dinner, real engagement with nature yields unexpected benefits. Hiking and skiing the Bitterroots, one may learn, over time, patience and strength, caution and confidence, and the satisfaction of accomplishing difficult physical tasks. One has the opportunity to surprise a bear, smell the vanilla odor of Ponderosa bark, learn how to handle a canoe or quarter an elk.

These rewards are neither instant nor guaranteed, but they have been an invaluable part of human experience from time immemorial. We are fools to throw them away for a blaze of adrenaline and a haze of blue smoke.

John Adams lives in Missoula, Montana.